Going green is good for business. Consumers are often willing to pay more for green products than for other comparable products on the market, according to market research.
But not all environmental claims are created equally. “Greenwashing” is a form of disinformation often used to appeal to a would-be green consumer. Companies that promise to be sustainable, biodegradable or environmentally conscious sometimes fail to deliver on the promises they make to consumers.
“It’s basically just a form of lying,” says Ellis Jones, a sociologist who studies greenwashing at the College of the Holy Cross.
As millions of Americans prepare to spend billions of dollars on Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, greenwashing experts are providing advice to consumers who want to spend their money with companies they trust.
What does greenwashing look like?
Greenwashing can be as obvious as an outright falsehood or as obscure as a forced truth.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission regulates green advertising at the federal level and has been filing lawsuits since 1992 against companies that violate their environmental marketing guidelines. In recent years, the agency has filed lawsuits against Walmart and Kohl’s for marketing friendly bamboo fabrics and Volkswagen for lying about the fuel efficiency of their cars.
Other cases of greenwashing are more difficult to discern. Take carbon offsets, for example. To negate their own emissions, some companies send money to programs like tree planting projects that theoretically offset the carbon pumped into the atmosphere by planting more trees to suck it up. But drought and fires have destroyed some of these forests, and critics say the offsets give companies permission to continue polluting.
Greenwashing is especially common in the fashion industry, says Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standards Institute, a think tank focused on improving the industry’s social and environmental standards. Being sustainable is the latest trend, she says, and a way for the industry to attract consumers.
“It’s super popular. I think we are at the pinnacle of greenwashing in the industry,” she says.
Another way retailers mislead consumers is by distracting them from a company’s most important issues, Bédat says.
For example, a major retailer might launch a new line of products, such as jeans, that use less water and therefore theoretically have a smaller environmental impact than the other items the company sells.
“You think ‘oh, that sounds great,'” she says. “You think that’s good news because it means it’s a good company overall.”
But that same company could ignore the use of water in the rest of their product lines, all while doing nothing to address the other ways their production could harm the environment.
Is it possible to vaccinate people against greenwashing?
“Consumer demand for sustainability is almost insatiable,” says Jones. “It is good news. It means that many consumers want to do the right thing. The problem is that they can’t always tell what is right.
But learning about greenwashing and how it works is an effective way for consumers to avoid giving their money to companies that make false claims, according to research by consultancy The Behavior Insights Team.
In a recent study, researchers investigated whether it was possible to inoculate people against greenwashing. By dividing the participants into three groups, one group was given information about greenwashing, the second was asked to create their own version of greenwashing, and the last group received no information about greenwashing.
The groups then displayed two “green” ads for fictitious energy companies. One promoted the company’s green office spaces, a distraction from the emissions it created by burning fossil fuels. And the other promoted a carbon footprint calculator that individuals could use to determine their personal energy use, pushing environmental responsibility onto the consumer.
The ads were effective among the group who hadn’t been given information about greenwashing: 57% of them believed energy companies were doing good for the environment. Additionally, consumers who said they were the most concerned about the environment were the most likely to fall for green marketing.
Conversely, participants who received information about greenwashing up front were more likely to be skeptical that the study’s fictitious energy companies actually benefited the environment.
What can you do?
As more and more companies look to cash in on sustainable marketing, governments are starting to take more action to protect consumers.
Since 2015, the FTC has taken action against 21 companies in the United States for using misleading environmental marketing. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently proposed two new regulations to regulate greenwashing in investment banking. And in New York, a bill called The Fashion Act would require fashion companies operating in the state to abide by the Paris climate accord.
A new law pushed by European Union members would more strictly regulate environmental claims and sustainability labels affixed to products sold in Europe.
Meanwhile, experts have tips on how consumers can spot potential greenwashing.
“You see a lot of products that use words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘better for the planet’ with images that make them look green,” says Todd Larsen, co-executive director of consumer and business engagement at Green America, an organization without for-profit organization to help consumers navigate greenwashing.
She recommends looking for descriptions that specifically describe how green a product is.
“Is it really organic or do you use vague words like ‘natural?'” she says.
While not foolproof, certifications from credible third parties such as USDA Organic, B Corp Certification, and Fair Trade can give consumers confidence in a product’s green claims.
Green America maintains a database of companies it certifies as environmentally and socially responsible, and Jones regularly publishes The Better World Shopping Guide in print and as a smartphone app.
Jones says consumers should also pay attention to what he calls the “green halo effect” of companies donating to environmental causes without changing the way they do business.
“People should be wary of philanthropy,” Jones says. “When [companies are] by focusing only on donations, they are just trying to distract from what they are doing.
Another tip she offers is to shop small.
“When in doubt, go smaller and local and independent,” says Jones.
When it comes to fashion, Bérdat says she rethinks her shopping habits. After all, buying a new sweater labeled “carbon neutral” produces even more carbon than wearing a sweater already in your closet.
Note: “The most sustainable thing you can do as a consumer is wear the things you have the most.”