What is greenwashing and how can we spot it?

30 May 2023
3 min read
Greenwashed factory

First coined in the 80s, greenwashing is advertising, marketing or a spin that makes consumers think the product they’re buying or using is good for the environment when the reality is, it might not be. 

There are plenty of brands which are guilty of greenwashing, just check this link to see  ads which have been banned because of it:

Worst culprit

In my opinion, Toyota are one of the worst.  They claim to have a ‘self-charging hybrid’ which sounds great on paper, but the reality is it’s petrol that fuels it. I’ve talked to so many people who have considered buying these cars because they think they’re good for the environment and the reality is they’re not but the claim of ‘self-charging’ makes people think they’re helping the planet.

Some labels can leave consumers thinking they’re making environmental choices when that isn’t always the case

The good news is though, there are things you can do to lessen your risk of being greenwashed. You can’t walk down a supermarket aisle without reading claims of ‘recyclable’ or ‘made using recycled plastic’ but there are calls for single signage to be introduced with a universal rating system, so we all know what we’re looking at.

Currently some labels can leave consumers thinking they’re making environmental choices when that isn’t always the case. The traffic light system works well on food and there’s a desire among environmental scientists and campaigners to have something like that which all of us can understand at a glance. 

Questions to ask

Woman in supermarket reading product labels

Words like ‘natural’ or ‘eco-friendly’ can be used on packaging but they don’t tell you anything about the environmental impact.

If you want to empower yourself, next time you pick up a product you think is environmentally friendly ask yourself a few questions. Is the claim vague? The word ‘recyclable’ as a claim on something plastic isn’t really a green credential as most plastic is recyclable and it’s down to you to recycle it. 

Are the colours or images trying to dupe me? Greens and blues can make us think of the environment, images of trees or blue skies on packaging can make us think we’re being environmentally friendly, but ingredients can be harmful to the environment or parent companies could be not so green. 

Do the words mean anything? Words like ‘natural’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ can be used on packaging but they don’t tell you anything about the environmental impact. Arsenic is a ‘natural’ product, but you certainly don’t want it anywhere near human consumption. If the claims are true, there should be wording on the packaging backing up the claim and explaining it. 

Is it hard to find information on their environmental policies? If you look at a product website and can’t find anything about their carbon footprint or environmental policies or plans that could be because they’re trying to hide something. Most companies with credible green policies put them front and centre of their branding and messaging as it’s great PR so if you’re struggling to find any information, that’s usually a bad sign. 

Where’s the proof? If a product says an ingredient is sustainably sourced, is there a third-party endorsement? Are they part of a reliable and recognisable certification scheme? Make sure you as a consumer can validate whatever claim you’re reading on the packaging. 

Stay a savvy shopper

Unfortunately, greenwashing isn’t going anywhere, and companies will find ways to make consumers choose them over a competitor, what we have as shoppers and buyers is the power to do our homework and make sure greenwashing doesn’t continue to have the impact it’s had so far. 


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