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Environmental Claims vs. Reality

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

For those of you who face the horrific moral dilemma of choosing between the £1 cleaning supplies and the £4 green ‘eco’ bottle every time you step foot in Tesco, you are not alone. You are also not a bad person for choosing to save your three quid. That change may be wasted on a non-existent ‘eco-friendly’ cause anyway. The increase in concern for environmental issues like pollution, plastic waste, and deforestation has caused consumers to seek out eco-friendly products and services when possible, and companies have been quick to respond to this growing demand. However, amidst the surge in environmental consciousness, a concerning phenomenon has emerged: greenwashing.

Greenwashing refers to the deceptive practice of making a company's products, policies, or operations appear more environmentally friendly than they are. It’s an attempt to capitalise on the green movement's momentum, drawing in conscientious consumers while often doing little to address underlying environmental problems. The term was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. He used it to describe the dissonance he observed between the luxurious advertisements of hotels and resorts boasting their conservation efforts, and the wasteful practices he observed on his travels. Since then, the concept has evolved and expanded as companies across various industries have attempted to portray themselves as environmentally responsible.

So what exactly does greenwashing look like, and how can you avoid it? One tactic to look out for is labelling products with unregulated terms like ‘natural’ or ‘eco-friendly’, without providing any concrete evidence or certifications to back these claims. It tricks consumers into thinking a product is better for the environment when there are no government-regulated usage of the terms and any product can claim them. Now, this doesn’t mean that the claims are completely untrue, or that the company is lying, it just means there is no law regulating whether they are telling the truth, or even regulating what ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ products are. Greenwashing can include irrelevant claims, like a company promoting its recyclable packaging while ignoring its excessive energy consumption. Some companies will also make one upcharged plant-based detergent, while the rest of their line is toxic and unsustainable. Some of the more ridiculous ploys that companies make include putting leaves on the bottle or even painting plastic to look like wood to make it look environmentally conscious. The Honest Company, a brand that was initially celebrated for its sustainability efforts, has used several of these tactics including putting leaves on their products and using words like natural or pure to promote eco-conscious products. They even say that products like their diapers are biodegradable, but the fine print notes that the diapers are made of rayon. While rayon does originate from plant fibers, it doesn't meet the legal criteria for biodegradability. To be genuinely biodegradable, a product must undergo complete decomposition into natural elements within a reasonable time period, which rayon does not. Another example is Fairy, a popular washing-up liquid by Proctor & Gamble; they released a limited edition bottle made of recycled ocean plastics and charged 50% more than the regular bottle. Then, once you look at the fine print, you’ll see that only 10% of the recycled plastic used to make the bottle is ocean plastic. Placing responsibility on the customer to pay 50% more for a product that is cleaning up plastic created by Fairy and other large corporations in the first place is deceptive and completely unethical.

For those who have the privilege to spend an extra few pounds on products that are truly clean from chemicals and created by sustainable companies, a few great brands include Bio-D, Miniml, and Faith in Nature. All of these have refillable products (green flag!) and are completely transparent about their origins, ingredients, and certifications. Many of the truly sustainable companies aren’t selling their products in Tesco or Sainsburys, but instead on the online Ethical Superstore, so you can buy your cleaning products without having to trek into town in the middle of a rainstorm. Many environmental causes can seem incredibly daunting and rooted in shaming you for not doing everything you can for the planet, and greenwashing can exacerbate this sentiment. However, sustainability is about doing what you can with the resources you have, in order to integrate better, cleaner practices into your routine and support businesses that can help you. Hopefully with a few buzzwords and red flags to look out for when shopping, greenwashing becomes more obvious and you’re able to buy better products without having to wonder if your money is going to toxic and unsustainable practices.

Image from WikiCommons

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