The six deadly sins of greenwashing

Being an informed consumer may be harder than you think

The recent trend of purchasing organic products has led to a massive increase in companies labelling their products to fit this demand. It’s not just Whole Foods anymore. Most stores carry products labelled as “organic,” “eco-conscious,” or “green,” making it seem as though it is an easy task to be a responsible consumer. However, these labels are often deceitful.

Greenwashing is a marketing tool used by companies to inaccurately portray their products as environmentally friendly, resulting in consumers feeling as though they are making the greener choice by purchasing from them. There are six “sins” of greenwashing – a phrase coined by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing after the company conducted research on green marketing. Ignoring these forms of greenwashing is detrimental for the planet.

These six types of greenwashing do a great job of making consumers feel a false sense of security. Environmental politics professor Nicola Walters believes that greenwashing creates a mask that makes it difficult for consumers to know what is safe and what is okay to purchase.

“Think about how many products these days are with green ‘down home’ packaging,” Walters said. “The local focus recently has been huge! People want to know where their purchases are coming from and companies know this. They are trying to appeal to this customer interest and there’s big money in it. Being educated about what is good for our bodies and the Earth shouldn’t be akin to a complex calculus question and an elongated research project.”

The most common greenwashing techniques that consumers should be aware of are hidden trade-off greenwashing and no proof greenwashing. Hidden trade-offs suggests that an entire product is “green” when it’s misleading about what percentage of the product is sustainably made. For example, it could contain only one percent recycled material and still be labeled as “green.” No proof greenwashing is just what it sounds like and occurs all the time. With this, there will be claims with no real certification or evidence.

Environmental studies senior Cassidy Mullennix admits that she has fallen victim to the hidden trade-off form of greenwashing. She questions whether or not the world can go green while living within a throwaway culture.

“At Plant Power in San Diego, I used to celebrate with a milkshake because it was packaged in ‘compostable plastic’ and that meant that I didn’t have to avoid it, right?” Mullenix said. “Wrong! I took some time to research how compostable plastic worked and it turns out that the material I was using would break down the same exact way plastic does if placed in the landfill and not sent to a high-temperature compost facility.”

Vagueness greenwashing is another common marketing tactic. Labels like “green” or “sustainable” that companies slap onto their products with a plastic sticker do not mean that they lived up to a strict standard. These labels are vague and do not clarify what standard of sustainable that they are following.

Similar to these misleading standards, the irrelevance greenwashing occurs when a company advertises that their product is free of something that is environmentally irrelevant. A common example of this are products that say “CFC free,” even though CFCs have been banned globally by law for over a decade.

The fibbing tactic is self-explanatory. Companies will simply outright lie about the environmental impact of their products. An example of this is Dieselgate, which is when Volkswagen lied about their automobiles’ emissions.

Lesser of two evils greenwashing misleads consumers by stating oxymorons. Examples of this are organic cigarettes and “green” pesticides. Although it may feel better to pick these options, they are overall still a bad choice.

Green marketing is a sinister and highly effective tactic that tells people what they want to hear. It is easy to fall victim to the greenwashing of products.

HSU alumnus Michael Powell believes that the only solution to this is to do the inconvenient research before purchasing a product.

“I think greenwashing lulls people into a false sense of security,” Powell said. “It makes us feel good because we want to help the environment and we think we are doing just that. We stop asking questions. The sad reality is that, oftentimes, we’re hurting the environment just the same.”

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