What is greenwashing: all you need to know in 2022

Greenwashing is not just a trend. It is a strategy to deceive consumers, who are looking to buy ethical products. How does it work? Keep reading to find out.

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March 15, 2022

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You have probably heard about green products. They have invaded both the Internet and the shelves of our stores. Now, they also get multiple qualifiers: “eco-friendly”, “all-natural”, “organic”... The list is quite long, and we won't go through it all. Mainly because these terms are not always meaningful. Unfortunately, most of these so-called “green” products are not as virtuous as we might think. What’s the problem? As more and more consumers feel concerned with climate change, many businesses want to get on the bandwagon. But this doesn’t mean that they are all willing to be honest. 😶 To ride the wave of sustainable development, some companies are working to deceive the vigilance of their customers. They offer what they claim to be an ethical and sustainable product (or service), while it is not. That’s greenwashing. You want to learn more about it? We tell you all you need to know about greenwashing in 2022.

❓ What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing: definition 📖

What is greenwashing? To be clear, this word describes a company which is misleading its customers, to make them think that its offer is eco-friendly. Even though this company claims that its products, its components or its practices are environmentally friendly, they are not.

In fact, the only thing they've changed is their marketing strategy: the company pretends to be sustainable, to deceive its customers who want to buy ethical products. 

The goal of greenwashing is only to make profit. Companies which are using greenwashing take advantage of collective awareness linked to global warming, and try to fit into this trend. They are just aiming at selling their products. 

As they know that people want to reduce their carbon footprint through changing their buying habits, some companies develop an argument consistent with this trend. But this argument is false.

A few examples of greenwashing 📌

Image power 📺

Do you know the power of image? This is one of the favorite techniques of companies which practice greenwashing. It is applied to visual communication media (TV, leaflets, etc.). To make it simple, this strategy consists in promoting products, by associating them with images related to ecology: nature, animals, etc. 

In fact, this imagery can give consumers the impression that the product is eco-friendly

One example? You may see that many car brands like to illustrate their vehicles in wild landscapes… This is no accident, for sure.

Misleading labels ❌

To deceive their consumers, some brands have no shame in developing their own "sustainable" label. But, in most cases, the label has not been verified by a third-party, authorized to judge the quality of the products sold.

Often these companies will declare that their product is "certified". Then, the qualifier varies: organic, natural, sustainable... Again, the list is long. But these assertions are generally untrue. 

That being said, misleading labels are also one of the most easily identifiable greenwashing techniques. Indeed, the absence of mention to the verification of a third party must immediately alert you. Be careful!

Red Herring 🐠

In short, this technique of greenwashing is aiming at diverting the attention of the consumer. The companies will make sure to value a specific aspect of their product, which can be described as ethical and sustainable. 

The issue is to ensure that consumers do not pay attention to other characteristics of the product, which are not ethical and sustainable.

In other words, these brands try to capitalize on one part of their offer and ignore the other aspects, which are often destructive to the environment.

Most of the time, this technique is applied to the packaging of the products: the packaging is recyclable, but not the product itself.

Irrelevant claims 💬

You can sometimes hear brands claiming that their products do not contain this or that substance. This would be worth them mentioning, if this was actually something that set their product apart from the rest.

However, some companies try to capitalize on embellishing these "achievements". Indeed, if the aforementioned substance is legally prohibited, this assertion is not worth mentioning on the packaging. In fact, all other competing brands are also required not to include it in their manufacturing processes. It is simply a standard, applicable by all market actors who tend to respect the law.

Approximative terminology ❗

This is a common practice: with the emergence of "green" products, many brands have decided to self-market their products as “green”. However, most of the time, they prefer to use an approximative terminology, or vague claims, suggesting that their products conform to high environmental standards. 

However, they don't risk being too specific with their terminology, because they could be proven to be false.

This is why you may often find products which are stamped to be “environmentally friendly”, a claim that is hard to confirm or deny.

👿 Why is greenwashing bad?

We could think that greenwashing only deals with ethics and morality. Unfortunately, it goes a step further. In the current context, this type of behavior is highly harmful. 

Beyond lying to consumers, greenwashing companies hinder all the efforts made to reduce the environmental impact of human activity

While many people are trying to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, greenwashing companies impede this approach and contribute to the perpetuation of an unsustainable model, responsible for irremediable damage to our ecosystem.

As a reminder, the Paris Agreement ― signed in 2015 ― aims at avoiding world temperature rise above 1,5 °C. This is not a whim or a random figure: achieving this goal is absolutely crucial, if we want to limit global warming's consequences (natural disasters magnitude, for example).

The situation is critical: many scientists believe that this threshold could be reached by 2030. 😱

Needless to say, there is no time to waste. Likewise, each action counts. And any initiative to undermine these valuable efforts puts our societies on the brink of disaster. You think we are exaggerating? Think again. The second part of the IPCC report - published in February 2022 - is clear on this.

Finally, if the climate emergency leaves you speechless, know that greenwashing is a highly damaging practice for your company itself - regardless of any ecological considerations.

In fact, as consumers are more and more demanding for brands’ transparency, trying to fool them could be extremely costly. If you are caught for greenwashing, you could forever loose the confidence of your prospects and customers, who are more vigilant than ever to the trust they can bring to businesses.

Be careful: with the emergence of social media, dissatisfied consumers are now able to share their experience on the web. If this is shared, your company could be tainted with a huge bad buzz. Worse: your brand image could be totally destroyed. You have been warned. 🚩

✌ 3 tips to avoid the greenwash trap as a company

Give evidence ✅

This is first and foremost. If you want to cut off any hint of greenwashing or attest to your statements, simply provide evidence. For example, if your product or service has been evaluated by an approved organization, prove it. Provide appropriate documentation. Make it easily accessible for your clients or any stakeholder who wants to consult them.

In fact, if you have that evidence, you’d better share it. To be clear, today, any initiative to make an organization more transparent is generally well received by consumers. So, do not hesitate: communicate before being urged to do so.

Tell the truth 😇

Be careful not to go to extremes: the fact that you don’t have any environmental or ethical certification doesn’t mean you have to hide your product. Starting the transition to a more sustainable business model does not happen overnight. This approach includes organization, planning and investment. If you need to review the composition of your product, don't expect to be able to make all the desired changes in a heartbeat. 

In this context, just try not to lie. Tell your consumers the truth. Although many of them are seeking to adopt more responsible consumption, they are also very careful about brand transparency. Starting to move towards a sustainable business model? Publish it! This is a very positive step.

Carry out your carbon footprint assessment 🌱

We all emit CO2. Greenhouse gas emissions are our common lot. Moreover, the greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon, which ensures Earth's temperature is compatible with human life. 

However, the excess of greenhouse gas emissions ― produced by human activities ― accentuates this phenomenon, increasing world average temperature and jeopardizing the terrestrial ecosystem. 

The goal is not to blame ourselves for that, but to ensure that the situation is remedied. In this context, what better way to avoid the trap of greenwashing, than by communicating openly on this statement. 

This is the approach of some companies, who choose to publicize the conclusions of their personalized carbon footprint assessment. The idea? To be transparent with their consumers, while adopting a constructive approach. 

The objective is to identify the main sources of their GHG emissions, before presenting the action plan developed, in order to reduce or offset those emissions. 

The goal isn't to be perfect. The key is action. 

😉 Maybe we should talk?

Are you convinced to act in favor of sustainable development? This article piqued your interest? You want to learn more and begin your transition toward a sustainable model? The Greenly teams answer all your questions. Contact them without further delay and ask for your personalized carbon assessment.

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Alexis Normand

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