Greenwashing – what we say versus what we do

A look behind the environmental and social impact of the work we do

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The media regularly highlights the worrying changes that we are seeing to our planet and climate and stress the need for us all to reflect on the environmental and social impact of the work we do and the products and services we buy. As a consequence, we have become more aware of sustainability and consumers now are starting to consider the environmental impact of purchases more than before.

We are witnessing growing availability of ‘eco’ options and with this comes an increasing number of businesses trying to be more sustainable or what is commonly referred to as ‘green’. However, is all their ‘green advertising’ really a reflection of what they are actually doing? Do they do what they say they do?

What is greenwashing?

The term ‘greenwashing’ is commonly used where a company makes misleading claims in order to present something as more environmentally friendly and sustainable than it actually is in order for them to appeal more to the consumer. Basically, they are exaggerating the sustainability of their product or service and so are untruthful about the real impact their offering has on the planet and the environment.

Examples of greenwashing that have hit the headlines include false emission claims, claims products are biodegradable when in fact they are no better than the standard equivalent and claims companies are carbon net-zero when in fact that relates only to a small part of the overall business.

Why is greenwashing now an issue?

There has been a huge increased interest in sustainability over recent years with more and more consumers on the lookout for environmentally friendly and ‘green’ options. This is really positive, but along with this have come more companies undertaking greenwashing in order to attract consumers.

It is not easy to spot when a company is greenwashing, but it is not a new way of working and is a practice adopted by some businesses for many years. However, the rise in demand for more sustainable options has led to a rise in demand for transparency in how these companies are offering a ‘better’ solution than others. Through this process, some companies have been found to not be telling the truth which, in turn, has given rise to the headlines accusing companies of greenwashing.

What is being done about it?

The increase in exposure of greenwashing has also led to a push for action to be taken to reduce it, and ideally prevent it in the future.

The UK government launched a new task force earlier this year which will tackle greenwashing in the finance sector. The Green Technical Advisory Group aims to develop a framework defining environmental sustainable investment which will allow investors to make more informed choices.

Certain sectors have also been highlighted as making greenwashing claims, with one being the fashion industry. Claims such as ‘eco’ and ‘made from sustainable materials’ are seen on labels but some research has highlighted that sometimes these claims are untrue. The Changing Markets Foundation reported recently that over 50% of clothing brands were making sustainability claims that breached the green guidelines issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Earlier this month, the CMA issued new guidance that gives companies to the end of this year to stop greenwashing or they will face court action along with potential damages to their reputation. From next year, the CMA will look into misleading green claims and, together with the negative impact arising from non-compliance, it is hoped that this will lead to the end of greenwashing in the future.

What can I do?

It is not easy to spot greenwashing, but there are certain things to consider when choosing a product or service:

  • Visit the website of the company you are buying from to look at the evidence they offer to support their claims. Also, look at their mission and values and see if this supports and backs up their offering.
  • Check out online reviews and publicity about the company. There is also the website ‘Good On You’ for the fashion industry which provides a rating for the brand based on sustainability and environmental issues and allows you to compare them to others.
  • Look at the supply chain and how the product ended up on the shelves and also what happens to it at the end of its life. Sometimes products appear more positive in certain areas of the supply chain but not in others. For example, a product might use sustainable materials but the workers are paid a tiny amount in remuneration. By looking at the overall picture, this allows you to really consider your purchase in advance.
  • Look out for certifications that support the company’s sustainability claims. An example of such is the B Corporation accreditation which is evidence that the company has gone through a third party verification which lets the consumer know the business is being honest about their products.
  • Watch out for claims which say a product is free from a certain substance as it may be that this is a legal requirement! It is worth checking that there is not already legislation in place to ban its use.
  • Look at the jargon, graphics and terminology used. Sometimes these draw the consumer in and make us think the product is environmentally friendly when in fact it is not.

Greenwashing is a negative side of sustainability and it is disappointing that there have been so many false claims made to date. However, with more consumers aware of the issue, along with the action being taken by the UK government and other bodies, this should hopefully reduce the level of greenwashing in the future.

It is so important that businesses are genuine and what they say and what they do are one in the same thing.

Caroline Harridence – Counting Clouds