Greenwashing is a term used to explain the practice of falsifying or overstating the green credentials of a product, service, brand or even a company itself.
Greenwashing is increasingly widespread and can be found across numerous sectors from food and fashion to energy, electronics, and finance. It can be subtle, for example with the use of logos and colours or by omitting certain information to give impression that a product is more environmentally friendly than it really is. Or it can take a form of broad, vague claims on products, for example ‘carbon-neutral’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘responsible’.
How big is the problem?
A global sweep by The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) of almost 500 websites promoting products and services across a range of sectors, including clothes, cosmetics and food, published in January 2021, found that 40% of green claims made could be misleading consumers. Research we carried out in 2021 for our report, Synthetics Anonymous, found that 59% of green claims made by fashion brands are misleading or unsubstantiated according to guidelines released by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. For some brands, this was as much as 90% or more.
Why does this matter?
A YouGov survey conducted in 2021 found that more than half (52%) of UK consumers based their purchasing decisions on a brand’s eco-credentials. People are clearly putting their money where their values lie and the market for ethical products is growing significantly. Often, companies charge a price premium for greener products. But if most of these claims are false, then consumers’ well-intentioned actions tally up to nothing.
Greenwashing is also problematic for progressive companies and is considered an unfair business practice. As consumers are increasingly looking for environmentally-friendly products, the businesses that are genuinely trying to make change can be disadvantaged by the ones that are making false or misleading claims.
The bigger problem with greenwashing is that it misleads us into believing change is happening, when in reality, nothing has changed or the situation has worsened. For example, in the fashion industry, the number of products labelled as sustainable or green has increased exponentially in recent years, and yet the toll exacted on the planet by the industry has continued to increase; rising emissions, increasing reliance on fossil-fuel derived synthetics, skyrocketing overconsumption, and a growing waste crisis. Greenwashing lulls us into a fall sense of security – a smokescreen that conceals continued exploitation of the planet and allows those responsible to get away with it.
The kind of systemic action that is needed to address environmental challenges across all sectors can also be undermined by greenwashing. We need legislative measures to address several crises that the world is facing simultaneously, such as the climate emergency, the plastic pollution crisis and the rapid loss of wildlife and biodiversity. If companies can unfairly market their products and services as environmentally-friendly, this can mislead the public and policy-makers into believing that progress is happening voluntarily and that we do not need legislation. Greenwashing is a pervasive and dangerous form of hypocrisy which collectively blinds us to the scale of the challenge we face.