It is 2019 and there is a prevalent shift in companies, both small and large, to be more transparent about their practices and to work at a more sustainable level. Being that “sustainable/ sustainability” are such big buzzwords that have many different definitions and meanings, we will use Dictionary.com’s definition of “sustainable” for the sake of clarity; they define sustainable as: “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” Although this shift seems to be a positive change, the consumers’ demand for more sustainable and socially responsible business practices cause profit-hungry companies to cut corners and portray an environmentally friendly, feel-good front when what they advertise does not hold to be true on the back end – this is called greenwashing. As Investopedia simply puts it, “greenwashing is conveying a false impression that a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they really are.”
Given that we, consumers, are not experts on every product and company we come across, it can be challenging to navigate through “green” and “all-natural” labels that overwhelm us on social media, down every aisle in the store and along the streets on billboards and posters. The first thing to know is that there is absolutely no legal meaning or binding to terms such as “green,” “environmentally friendly” or “eco friendly.” These are commonly used gimmick terms that companies use to increase their sales and to appeal to a larger audience. We have to remember that the majority of companies we encounter on a daily basis put their shareholders as a priority, meaning that they are in business to make as much money as possible. Of course, this is not the case for all companies, which is why it’s important to be able to realize which are trustworthy and which are not. It is unfortunate that these terms have been (and are being) so overused because not every company that labels these terms on their products or services are necessarily greenwashing. It should also be alarming to consumers if there is no credibility or proof to the company’s claims of being “all-natural,” “sustainably made,” “degradable,” etc. The majority of companies can label their products as such, but it’s up to the consumer to do their homework and ask themselves questions such as:
- What makes the product all-natural aside from it not containing synthetics or dyes? Has it been minimally processed? Are there no unnecessary ingredients added?
- How is something “sustainably made?” Is it made in fair working conditions? Is it made from a certain amount of recycled material? Does it not use raw materials that harm the environment? Does it have a much lower carbon footprint compared to other similar products?
- Are suggestive images such as flowers, leaves, green fields and trees making me assume that a product is actually a sustainable option? Do the colors and images just make me feel good and assume it’s a good product when it really isn’t?
Of course, there are a hundred more questions you could ask while identifying what there is to know about a product; this is to show that as a consumer you should always investigate further beyond what a product label says, especially given all of the flexible use of language.
Here we will use two companies as examples- one that says they are making efforts to be more sustainable, and another that is actually making efforts.
A prime example where greenwashing takes place is in the plastic water bottle industry. Taking a close look to Fiji Water, they market their bottled water as, “bottled at the source and untouched by man,” as well as every drop of water being “green.” The use of these words and the bright images of palms, flowers and green leaves make the viewer feel like they are purchasing a natural, uhmarful product. Although, none of this changes the fact that it will take over 450 years for a single bottle to degrade. It does not even stop there- after the bottle degrades, it will turn into microplastic which will be multiple times more harmful than the full size plastic bottle for years on end. This does not sound like such a “green” product to buy now, doesn’t it?
There are also other small changes that companies implement to make consumers feel better about their purchase. For example, Arrowhead Brand Natural Spring Water has made their bottle caps smaller, and introduced their “eco-shape” water bottles, which just uses less plastic than their previous bottles. Yes, Arrowhead is reducing how much plastic they use in production, although just like the Fiji water bottles, it does not change the fact that it will take at least 450 years to decompose and turn into an even more harmful object. This is why it is important to recognize language such as “eco-shape” on a product that is still completely harmful to the environment.
On the other hand, there are brands such as Patagonia who recognize what harm is done through business, especially in the clothing industry. Patagonia fights this being as transparent as possible and using the healthiest business practices they can. A great example is their ad campaign called “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” In the bottom text of this advertisement, they explain that to produce the R2 jacket (pictured), it took 135 liters of water and 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. This advertisement also came out right before the largest retail-buying day of the year in the U.S.- Black Friday. The point of running this campaign was to make consumers aware of how harmful their purchases can be; even though Patagonia is a for-profit business who wants to sell their clothing, they only want to sell it to those who actually need it, who will make good use of it, and who will dispose of it properly (such as sending it back to the company to be repurposed). To add on to their transparency, Patagonia has a program called The Footprint Chronicles, which lets anyone dive deep into their supply chain and see exactly where each material in any of their products come from, as well as facts about the factory, farm or mill. These facts include the percentage of men to women who work there, how many workers there are total, what language is spoken, what is produced at the location and what efforts the factory, farm or mill makes to minimize their carbon footprint. All of this connects the consumer to the product on a much more intimate level, and really makes the consumer rethink what their impact of purchasing a product is, and if it’s absolutely necessary to buy.
One last effort that Patagonia makes is through their Worn Wear program, which is where consumers can buy used Patagonia clothing at a highly discounted price, or have their clothing repaired by professionals. Patagonia says, “One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is make high-quality stuff that lasts for years, so you don’t have to buy more of it.” This program and statement shows that Patagonia is here to provide consumers with durable clothing in a way that has the smallest environmental footprint as possible.
Overall, we can see what companies do to deceive consumers through greenwashing, as well as what companies do to be environmentally conscious and to minimize the impact they have on the world. Of course, the most sustainable practice that anyone can take part in is to consume less; this can mean using a metal reusable water bottle instead of a plastic one, carpooling or using public transportation, washing clothes less often, not eating such a heavy meat diet, or not buying a second fleece jacket when you don’t truly need it. Lastly, never forget to keep asking yourself questions before making a purchase. Look past the “green,” “eco-friendly” and “all-natural” labels and find out where the product came from, how it was manufactured, what raw materials went into it, and what kind of labor practices were used to be a more conscious and less negatively impactful consumer.