How To Avoid “Greenwashing” This Holiday Season

How To Avoid “Greenwashing” This Holiday Season

| By Jennifer Kuklenski |

Black Friday marks the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. After seeing overall holiday sales increase by about 8.2% in 2020, the National Retail Federation (NRF) expects Americans to spend 8.5% to 10.5% more this holiday season, bringing overall holiday spending between $843.4 and $859 billion in 2021. Despite the hardships caused by the pandemic, consumers are expected to spend above the five-year average for gifts this year.

Many consumers will be looking for sustainable product offerings. But how can consumers tell if sustainability claims are legitimate and not just greenwashing?

Growing Demand for “Green” Products

According to extensive research conducted by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, products marketed as sustainable are driving growth for consumer packaged goods (CPG). In fact, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not during the period under study. Products with a sustainability claim on the packaging accounted for 16.5% of the market in 2018, up from 14.3% in 2013, and experienced a 29% increase in sales.  

There appears to be no better time to launch a sustainable product offering and companies are responding. As they rush to meet the growing demand for more sustainable products however, companies may intentionally or unintentionally be engaging in greenwashing. Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to criticize hotels for encouraging guests to reuse towels while making little effort to engage in other types of sustainable behavior (e.g. recycling), greenwashing, as explained by Jacquelyn Ottman, is the promotion of a product as sustainable when in fact, it may be less than “legitimately green.”

So how do consumers and firms avoid greenwashing?

A report from Futerra’s Business for Social Responsibility provides some key insight. In an analysis of broadcast, in-person, online, and print communications, Futerra managed to identify 10 signs of greenwashing that can help consumers identify it, companies avoid it, and society prevent it.  

  1. Fluffy language: Words or phrases with no clear meaning. For example, what does biodegradable actually mean? Most consumers don’t realize that “biodegradable” products require a specific environment to biodegrade in, which is typically not found in landfills where trash usually ends up. If the company is not clear on how long the product will take to biodegrade in a landfill, the product is probably less than legitimately green.  
  1. Green product vs. dirty company: A company may produce an environmentally friendly product but may do so through environmentally harmful production processes. For example, a company may produce solar panels in a factory that pollutes water bodies.
  1. Suggestive pictures: Green imagery that indicates a green impact. The bottled water industry is a common culprit. How many plastic bottles have you seen with pristine images of the outdoors? Researchers from the Pacific Institute point out that bottled water production actually requires an enormous amount of oil and may use up to 2,000 times the energy of tap water production. The same researchers found that nearly half – 44% – of bottled water is simply filtered municipal tap water.
  1. Irrelevant claims: Emphasizing one small green attribute while everything else is not green. Consider a laptop computer with an EnergyStar label. Although being EnergyStar certified is certainly better than not, electronics products often contain toxic substances (e.g. lead and mercury) which can be harmful to human health and the environment if not disposed of carefully.
  1. Best in class: Declaring a product is greener than the rest when the rest are pretty terrible. For example, does it really mean anything to be the most environmentally-friendly factory farm?    
  1. Just not credible: Some products will simply never be green. Anyone interested in eco-friendly cigarettes? Attempting to “green” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe. Side note: cigarettes are actually the most abundant form of plastic pollution in the world!  
  1. Jargon: Information that only an environmental scientist would understand. A disclaimer that can’t be understood by the general public should raise a red flag. Why not just tell consumers about the product in layman’s terms?
  1. Imaginary friends: A “label” that looks like a third-party endorsement that is actually made up. Most consumers probably don’t realize that many of the eco-friendly labels found on products and packaging are from the company’s own in-house certification process. Consumers should look for third-party labels to assess green legitimacy (e.g. UK BREEAM or USA Green Seal).
  1. No proof: Not showing any evidence for green claims. Again, third party labels can help signal legitimately green processes that have been verified by reliable organizations.  
  1. Out-right lying: Completely fabricated claims or data. This is rare, but the 9 signs above can help consumers spot when advertising may be less than truthful.

The “Green” Dilemma

Although greenwashing is deceptive, it is rarely caused by cruel plots to purposefully deceive customers. As Futerra reminds us in their Selling Sustainably report, greenwashing is usually the result of over-enthusiasm. Most commonly, companies embellish the environmental benefit of a product or service and it’s easy to see why. According to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on sustainable brands, and that figure increases to 73% among millennials.

It’s also important to remember that no product can be 100% “green.” By nature of producing something, companies use resources and create waste. However, companies can make incremental changes that help minimize their environmental impact and many of them are. As consumers, we can support these efforts by purchasing from companies that are making legitimate strides toward environmental and social responsibility.

Interested in learning more about sustainability in business? Join the 3P Impact Club! Members get access to monthly workshops, bonus webinars, weekly group coaching sessions, discounted 1-1 business coaching, and a member portal filled with resources to help your business or organization grow with impact.

This article was originally published on November 26, 2020 and updated on November 22, 2021.

3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.