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How to spot and stop
greenwashing as a consumer

October 2023 

How to spot and stop greenwashing as a consumer

How does an “eco-friendly hiking shirt sustainably crafted from farm to trail” sound? Perhaps like the better choice, compared to an average cotton tee. But in reality, it’s probably too good to be true.

We have said this before, and we’ll say it again: there is no such thing as a sustainable industrially produced product.

Everything has an impact on the environment. That impact can be bigger or smaller, so it’s important that you as a consumer have access to the right information so you can make that better choice. This is where the issue of greenwashing comes in.

The problem with greenwashing

“Greenwashing” is a term used to describe the false or misleading claims companies make about the environmental impact or benefits of their products or services.  

Sometimes it’s intentional, where companies purposefully exaggerate “green” actions to promote an environmentally responsible public image and take advantage of the market. Other times, companies take part in greenwashing unknowingly—perhaps due to a lack of knowledge or difficulty translating complex sustainability actions in a clear and accurate way. Intentional or not, both are greenwashing, and both are problematic. 

The problem with greenwashing is that it clouds consumers’ vision, making it difficult to make choices that are truly better for the environment and actually help make progress toward the future green economy we are all hoping for. 

How do you spot greenwashing?

As a consumer you play an important part in eradicating greenwashing.  Here are some common instances of greenwashing to watch out for.

  1. Buzzwords or unsubstantiated labels
    “Eco-friendly,” “green,” and “good for the environment” are all examples of vague and misleading buzzwords and unsubstantiated labels a company might use to describe their products.

    If you run into this, ask the company for proof. For example, does the product in question contain recycled materials or is it certified according to a recognized standard?
  1. Benefits reported at a distorted scale
    Every step of progress counts, but still, the environmental benefit being claimed might not be as impactful as it sounds. Take, for example, a company that claims to use their own carbon dioxide waste to grow plants, but looking at their total carbon footprint reveals that the initiative only addresses 0.35% of their total emissions.

    Always look at the bigger picture and ask, does the environmental benefit being claimed accurately represent the scale of the business’ total environmental footprint?
  2. "Better" alternative claims that don’t account for overall product impact
    On the surface, a vegan leather bag certainly sounds like it would have a smaller footprint than a traditional cow leather bag. But how was it made? With what chemicals and materials?  How much water and energy were used in the process?

    Such claims rarely come with an explanation of what the alternative material is or what the alternative production process looks like. Is the overall impact of the product actually reduced, or does its manufacture and life cycle only generate more negative impacts?

It’s important to ask follow-up questions and insist that companies provide evidence that the “more sustainable” product actually results in a reduced impact. 

Your anti-greenwashing to do list

  • Ask for specific evidence to back up any green product claims
  • Check the scale of impact—how does the benefit claimed affect the total environmental footprint?
  • Ask follow-up questions to get to the truth of “better alternative” claims
  • If the company can’t back up their claims, move on to a company that can
  • Report any suspected greenwashing activities to the authorities

Aren’t there laws to prevent greenwashing?

In theory, yes. Today, environmental claims are subject to multiple laws, both on the EU and national level. But in practice, there is a wide range of variation when it comes to green claim requirements and enforcement. There are already several cases of companies being brought to court because of greenwashing—something that will most likely only become more common in the future with the new legislation and regulations on the way.

An example of such legislation is a proposal for a Directive on Green Claims which was adopted by the European Commission in March 2023. The proposal aims to stop companies from making misleading claims about the environmental merits of their products and services. The proposal includes:

  • Clear criteria on how companies should prove their environmental claims and labels
  • Third party verification requirement for any environmental claims
  • Increased enforcement

It represents a vital step forward in helping consumers avoid greenwashing pitfalls in the future because it forces companies to step up and be more accountable for the sustainability claims they make.

We all need to act to secure a more transparent future 

While the EU’s anti-greenwashing law proposal sounds great, it will take some time before it is implemented. And we can’t sit around waiting for that to happen.

You as a consumer can and should act against greenwashing already now. Remember your anti-greenwashing to do list. Always use a critical eye when viewing any green or sustainable marketing. Ask follow-up questions, and don’t be afraid to call out a company and report any suspicious greenwashing activities. 

Companies shouldn’t wait around either of course. To ensure that consumers can make informed choices that reduce their own environmental footprint, companies need to drop the green buzzwords and start talking about real facts backed up by scientific evidence.

Once we all put this confusing greenwashed landscape behind us, it will become a lot easier for consumers and companies alike to spot where vital improvements can be made, make better choices, and ideally take action to reduce our collective footprint.