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Greenwashing: What is it? Why is it bad?

Chances are, if you’ve been keeping up to date with environmental and sustainability issues, you may have heard of the concept of greenwashing. What exactly does this term mean? Unschool defines greenwashing as instances in which companies “invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as ‘green’ rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable.” This idea has gained traction as environmental activists expose more and more companies for advertising false or misleading information designed to convince consumers that they are buying environmentally conscious products. 

This presents a number of problems in striving for environmental progress. A company that believes it has already done everything it needs to do or everything it can do is likely to become complacent, allowing overconsumption and pollution to continue, all while not truly understanding the environmental consequences they continue to perpetuate. Even worse are companies that are aware of the harm they are causing the environment but who continue to greenwash their advertisements and products regardless.

Luckily, there is something that we as consumers can do about it. Our most effective strategy is to learn to identify greenwashing and avoid buying greenwashed products as much as possible. Terrachoice outlines a list of common greenwashing strategies, called “Sins of Greenwashing.” The following are some of the most prevalent tactics:

  • The Hidden Trade-Off: A product is advertised as environmentally friendly in one regard, but does not mention other ways in which the product may be harmful to the environment

  • No Proof/Fake Labels: Making a claim about a product without providing any form of verification or advertising endorsements or certifications that are not legitimate.

  • Vagueness/Jargon: These are related concerns to look out for. A product may use vague words without specifying what is meant by them (“green,” “organic,” “sustainably manufactured”), or it may rely on scientific jargon that lay consumers are not adequately equipped to investigate or question

  • Irrelevance: A product tries to sound more impressive by making a claim that consumers may not realize is irrelevant. This may also apply to companies that make misleading claims about their efforts to preserve the environment.

  • Lesser of two evils: A product advertises itself as the “better” option out of others that are more harmful to the environment, even though it may also be harmful to the environment.

Check out Part 2, linked here, for tips on how to avoid greenwashing!


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