Greenwashing: What to Look Out For

By Jenevra Wetmore

As if there aren’t already enough scams and deceptive marketing techniques to watch out for, environmentally-minded consumers have another pitfall to keep in mind: greenwashing. “Greenwashing,” coined in the 1980s in an essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, is when a company markets their services or products as more sustainable than they truly are. This practice misleads consumers who are interested in supporting sustainability, and makes more money for companies who aren’t truly invested in environmental initiatives. 

The most popular example of greenwashing is a practice that I had personally never realized was greenwashing to begin with: the “save your towel” sign that is in many hotels. The sign is meant to encourage guests to save and re-use their towels as a way of conserving water. In reality, this practice helps the hotel cut down on staff expenses and makes very little impact on water use. It is a way for hotels to seem like they are doing good for the environment, which appeals to guests, without having to make a meaningful change in their business practices.

What can you do to avoid falling prey to greenwashing? There are some key signs you can pay attention to that will help you determine if a brand is seriously committed to the environment. First, pay attention to the words and images a brand uses. “Eco-friendly,” “green,” “earth-friendly,” and “all natural” are meaningless without a true environmental commitment backing them. Many brands also use the color green or natural imagery to convey a vague sense of being environmental. Instead, look for eco-friendly logos that signify certain environmental standards are being met, and use third-party certifiers. Examples include: LEED, USDA organic, Fair Trade Certified, B-Corp, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Watersense, Seafood Watch, Ecocert, and many more. These aren’t perfect, but are better than meaningless labels. 

Companies also inflate the environmental benefits of their products, or fail to disclose qualifiers to environmental claims, to make them seem more sustainable. For example, labeling a plastic package containing a shower curtain as “recyclable” makes it unclear as to whether the package, curtain, or both are recyclable, which is deceptive to a consumer who may then buy the product thinking the shower curtain is recyclable. Other examples include irrelevant labels, such as paper made with “all natural materials” (most paper is already made with the natural material we commonly call wood), or labeling laundry detergent as “phosphate free,” since phosphates were phased out of laundry products years ago. These advertising techniques lead consumers to believe that a purchase is better for the planet when it clearly isn’t, and are difficult to spot if you’re not looking for them. 

The last trick to avoiding greenwashing might be the most elementary of environmental principles: reduce, reuse, recycle. One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as consumers every day is where will the product I am buying end up? When possible, always choose the product that is part of the circular economy. This means that it will not end up in a landfill after one use, like a chip bag, but can be reused (like a refillable water bottle) or recycled. First reduce the amount you consume, then reuse what you can, and finally recycle if you have no alternative. Many products, even those with truly good intentions, must be immediately disposed of after one use– think “compostable” plastic cutlery that cannot go in at-home compost systems, and that larger compost companies in Vermont do not accept. This is not a truly sustainable product, regardless of whether the intentions behind it are pure.

Of course, not all green marketing is greenwashing; many companies are truly dedicated to sustainability and are walking the walk when it comes to their practices. Patagonia has long been known as a sustainable brand. The company offers a repair and reuse program, which repairs and sells used Patagonia clothing, and has published a free repair guide. Recently the founder Yvon Chouinard transferred his ownership of the company, valued at 3 billion, to a trust and nonprofit organization. Rather than sell the company, he and his family made this choice so that company profits will be used to combat climate change and protect land. They received no tax incentives in return. 

Many folks struggle to base their purchases on environmental concerns alone– convenience, accessibility, and cost are huge factors that cannot be ignored. However, if you are someone with the means to prioritize the environment in your shopping, watch for greenwashing. Choose companies you know and trust, and choose to buy local when you can. In the Upper Valley we have the amazing opportunity to walk into many of our grocery stores (or farmers markets) and buy local products and produce, no green label needed.

A little forethought goes a long way toward choosing everyday items that can be reused again and again, rather than being discarded or recycled. Reusable straws come in several long-lasting materials, including glass (left) and metal (right). Bamboo straws (not shown) are reusable and are made from that renewable, fast-growing member of the grass family. This striped paper straw (middle) can be recycled or composted, but can only be used once. Plastic straws are manufactured from polypropylene (for which petroleum is the raw material), cannot be recycled and often end up in a landfill, on the side of the road or in the ocean where they sicken and kill marine wildlife when they are ingested.


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