How Greenwashing Muddies Product Waters
Story by: Jace Puckett
2019 has been a relevant year for the green movement. In August, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg traveled to New York to attend the UN Climate Action Summit. As talk about climate change continues, we have seen a trend of companies within the last decade that market their products to be environmentally conscious. From Hydro flasks and Kånken bags to reusable metal straws, numerous products have been advertised as being “green” when in fact that is not always the case. A certain marketing tactic called “greenwashing” makes it difficult to tell what is or isn’t environmentally friendly. A spin on the word “whitewashing,” the act of concealing unpleasant facts about a person or organization, greenwashing is the act of disguising products and services as “green” or “eco-friendly” when in fact they aren’t.
“[Greenwashing is] inevitable because there’s a market advantage to having a product that’s differentiated by its green properties,” says Caleb Crow, the Energy Conservation Manager of the Office of Energy and Sustainability at Austin Community College. “If a green label is…raising the cost of whatever you’re talking about, that is a competitive disadvantage for that product, compared to a similar product that maybe didn’t go through a vetted process, but puts a similar-looking but rather meaningless label on the product to confuse a buyer, and then that product is, therefore cheaper, even if it’s in other ways similar. So greenwashing has a negative effect on the marketplace because people will be motivated by cost in many instances.”
Research on the effects of greenwashing on buyer decisions is limited, but there is certainly a demand for green products, to which companies are responding for better or worse. A 2010 study done by Richard Dahl suggests that buyer skepticism can make these misleading advertisements “risky ventures” for companies, many of which are simply trying to profit as much as possible.
“There’s been a lot of analysis of greenwashing, and the public has caught on to it,” Claudette Juska, a research specialist at Greenpeace, commented. “I think in general people have become skeptical of any environmental claims. They don’t know what’s valid and what isn’t, so they disregard most of them.”
The burden of proof often falls on the party making the claim, but several companies commit what has been termed the “sin of no proof,” one of seven “sins of greenwashing” named by TerraChoice. Because companies fail to provide proof of their environmentally-friendly claims or lie altogether (“sin of fibbing”), it may be up to buyers to determine which products are green and which are brown, the opposite of green.
However, buyers don’t have to assume full responsibility: “In terms of [the] Energy and Sustainability office for ACC, we’re doing research on individual product lines that we can then refer to individual buyers,” Crow said. “We have the benefit of being able to think ahead and research.”