Guide to Greenwashing: 3 Tips on How to Spot It

There’s an old Carl Sagan quote, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Unfortunately for us mere mortals, inventing the universe seems a fairly unattainable goal, so we have to settle for making our apple pies from the ingredients available to us.

The next step, then, is where the materials for this apple pie, or anything that’s being created, come from. It seems that we will forever and always need to source materials, raw or manufactured. However, the materials used, the way they are processed, manufactured and distributed, and the people who work with them, are areas that come within human control.

For many brands, it has not seemed that much thought has gone into this process other than cost and efficiency. The many products in the quickest amount of time at the lowest price.

Now, as more and more consumers are beginning to demand more environmentally and socially responsible products and services, brands have found methods to continue doing business without making significant changes, but adding that special eco-touch to their marketing to make it seem okay. This is greenwashing.

With that in mind, here are three quick tips on how to spot greenwashing:

  1. One-off campaigns or tokenism: Clothing brands in particular are notorious for this, making capsule collections that are from “eco-materials”. If a brand is focused on specific items or collections, rather than their overall business, ethos, and strategy, then this is greenwashing. The same can be said for social campaigns, as many brands are now aiming to show more visible diversity in their advertising, yet their business is still predominantly made up of specific dominant demographics.
  2. Labels, branding, and lack of evidence: If they throw around buzzwords like “eco-friendly” or “natural” but do not give any proof as to how, then it’s probably a fake-out. Some brands have found that adding the word “vegan” also makes consumers think a product is more sustainable; for example, vegan potato chips…. but what else would potato chips be?
  3. Emphasis on consumer behavior instead of brand’s: This is one that big polluting companies love to use. For example, many airlines now offer individual consumers the opportunity to compensate for the carbon footprint of their individual flights. Rather than the airlines taking accountability for their own impact, consumers are left with the guilt and the bill. This is not just the case with airlines, so beware anytime a brand tries to make you feel guilty – a good guess is that they’re trying to divert your attention away from their own behavior.

A few resources if you’d like to look further into the issue of greenwashing are:

The FTC Green Guides (These are scheduled to be updated in 2022)

The EU’s screening of websites for ‘greenwashing’ (Full report yet to be published)

What is greenwashing?

A History of Greenwashing: How Dirty Towels Impacted the Green Movement

The “Six Sins of Greenwashing”

Can we stop greenwashing?

How to tell if a ‘Sustainable’ business is ‘Greenwashing’ (Paywall article)