A Guide to Greenwashing: What it is and How You Can Spot it


What is Greenwashing? - H&M Bag

According to the Webster Dictionary, Greenwashing is “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” In other words, it’s a deceptive marketing practice that companies use to make you think you’re buying an eco-friendly product when you’re actually not.

While disappointing, it’s not surprising that businesses do this. After all, a recent study found that if a product is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly, 78% of people are more likely to buy it. There’s just one problem though—there’s no clear definition as to what makes something “environmentally friendly.”

Contrary to what many companies want you to think, green packaging and a recycling label doesn’t make something good for the planet. The resources used, who made the product, where it’s made, how it’s shipped, where the ingredients are sourced, and the packaging used—all of it makes up the environmental footprint of a product.

However, not all of that information is readily available to consumers. This means that identifying what is greenwashing and what isn’t can be tricky. Not impossible though. As consumers we can do our due diligence rather quickly to successfully identify and avoid greenwashing.

How to Identify Greenwashing in Six Steps

What is Greenwashing? - Girl on computer

Step 1: Search for a sustainability section

An eco-friendly brand will have a sustainably section on its website. It might be labeled “Impact” or it may be found in the “About” section, but regardless of what it’s called, any truly eco-conscious brand will have one.

However, simply having a page about sustainability isn’t enough. You need to evaluate how comprehensive it is. Is it a couple of sentences, or are there multiple sections speaking to different topics? If it’s the former, it’s likely greenwashing. If the latter proceed to the next step.

Related: Eco-Friendly Shopping Tips for a More Sustainable Wardrobe

Step 2: Analyze the details

This is not 10th grade English class—you can’t afford to skim here. You’ll need to scrutinize what’s written in the sustainability section. Look out for vague phrases like “natural ingredients,” “sustainable materials,” or “biodegradable.” These phrases can be important key words, but should be coupled with additional context or supporting information. For instance, most truly sustainable brands will tell you what their natural ingredients are. They’ll explain why they’re natural, why that matters, and where they’re sourced from (and spoiler alert: just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s better).

It’s also important to evaluate how the brand talks about sustainability. Does it only reference sustainable packaging, but nothing else? A truly ethical brand will approach sustainably holistically. It’ll speak about eliminating waste at the source, it’ll discuss plans to reduce emissions, not just how to offset them, and it’ll provide insight into its supply chain. The brand may also acknowledge its weaknesses. If it can admit it’s shortcomings, and provide plans for improvement that is typically an indication that the brand is not greenwashing.

Step 3: Look for certifications

Although certifications don’t automatically imply that a brand is ethical, they should be considered when doing research. When looking at what is greenwashing and what isn’t, labels like Fair Trade Certified, B-Corp, Leaping Bunny Certified, or USDA Organic can be super helpful. These types of labels indicate that a third party has vetted and verified the brand’s claims.

As mentioned before though, these labels aren’t the end-all-be-all. You should still do a fully holistic evaluation of the brand to determine whether it’s genuine in its sustainability claims or not.

Step 4: Evaluate how inclusive the brand is

Human rights are just as much a part of sustainability as plastic-free packaging is. Check to see if BIPOC and AAPI communities are represented on the brand’s website, social media, advertisements, and in its leadership team. Look for plus-sized and disabled representation as well. A lack of this representation, especially within a company’s employee-base and team of decision makers can be a sign of greenwashing. Genuinely sustainable brands will be inclusive brands.

Step 5: Look at who the parent company is

Sometimes an eco-friendly brand may fall under the umbrella of a not-so-eco-friendly parent company. Do a quick Google search of [brand in question] + “parent company.” For instance, Unilever owns Love Beauty & Planet bath products. The line claims to be clean, cruelty-free, and recyclable. However, its parent company has a reputation for being one of the world’s largest plastic polluters.

Does this automatically mean that Love Beauty & Planet is greenwashing? Not necessarily because the previous four steps should also be taken into consideration. However, it should not be ignored and may warrant further research.

Step 6: Consider how much the company is producing

Despite any sustainability efforts, is the company still churning out large volumes of cheaply made products? Is it still pushing you to buy unnecessarily? Take fast fashion brand, Shein as an example—this company releases 314,000 new styles every day. For context, fellow fast fashion rival Boohoo, only (“only”) releases 18,000.

Pumping out that volume alone is creating an immense amount of greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Then mix in the fact that these styles are being sold for five, ten, fifteen dollars a pop (prices that indicate garment workers are not being paid a fair wage to make them) and it’s clear that sustainability is not at the core of the company’s business model despite any eco-friendly claims it makes.

A company that is truly working toward a planet-friendly future will emphasize purchasing products that will last. They’ll also encourage you to repair and care for what you already have, and will ultimately release smaller batches of styles.

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