5 Checks To See If You've Been Greenwashed By A 'Sustainable' Product

Eco buzzwords are everywhere – how do you spot the fake from the genuine?
Anna Blazhuk via Getty Images

When you’re trying to buy products that don’t contribute towards climate change, words like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” on packaging can suck you in.

You might also be drawn towards big businesses who’ve made headline-grabbing, green pledges. But unfortunately, not all is as it seems.

While some products and brands are making environmentally-friendly changes, others are simply capitalising on the moment, without actually making a meaningful difference.

This marketing ploy is known as greenwashing – when companies make spurious environmental claims about their products or services. And as journalist Sophia Smith Galer pointed out, even some of the sponsors of the COP26 climate conference are guilty of it.

Greenwashing is not a new trend and brands have been in trouble in the past for disingenuous eco claims. So, how exactly can you spot signs of it?

Green Impact, a climate consultancy group, says there are some main signs to watch out for:

1. Jargon: Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g. “eco-friendly”). Are there examples of how they’re being eco-friendly? What evidence is there to support the buzzwords they use?

2. Green product vs. dirty company. They may have a green new product or project, but how eco-conscious is their wider company? What’s the point of an energy-efficient lightbulb, for example, if it was made in a factory that pollutes rivers?

3. Suggestive pictures. Green images that indicate an unjustified green impact (e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes).

4. Best in class. Declaring they are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.

5. Imaginary friends. This could be a “label” that looks like third party endorsement — except that it may be made up. Does the third-party have the same claim on their website/marketing? Where is the proof that it’s been approved by a greener organisation?

Greenpeace UK’s climate campaigner, Louisa Casson, says it’s more important than ever to hold companies to account.

She tells HuffPost UK we’ve entered “the golden age of greenwash” where consumers are being hoodwinked by companies using “sleazy, underhand tactics”. She believes offsetting is the worst offender.

“Carbon offsetting allows companies and polluters to carry on business as usual by paying for their emissions to become someone else’s problem, through initiatives like tree planting,” she explains. “Thanks to offsetting you can now buy ‘carbon neutral’ petrol from Shell and take ‘carbon neutral’ flights with British Airways.

“But don’t be fooled. Those trees take decades to grow, may never reach maturity and there simply isn’t enough land on this planet to offset our way out of this crisis. Shell, BA and the countless other companies jumping on the greenwash bandwagon are just looking for an easy way out.”

HuffPost UK contacted Shell and BA about these claims. Shell is yet to respond, but in a statement, BA said it is committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“In the short-term this means improving our operational efficiency, flying more fuel efficient aircraft and introducing carbon offset and removal projects while in the medium to longer term we’re investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuel and looking at how we can help with the growth of zero emissions hydrogen-powered aircraft and carbon capture technology,” it said.

Still, Casson remains unconvinced, saying: “If a company isn’t doing all it can to cut its emissions first and foremost, it isn’t doing enough.”

Not-for-profit group Ethical Consumer adds that brands are getting cleverer in how they market themselves, making it more difficult for consumers to see which brands are genuinely taking action and those that aren’t

“We see greenwashing in a number of forms. It can be anything from unsubstantiated claims about carbon neutrality, to ‘natural’ ingredients, to big brands promoting a small aspect of their business that happens to be environmentally friendly when the rest of their business certainly isn’t,” a spokesperson tells HuffPost.

“At the moment, for example, we’re seeing energy companies talk a lot about transitioning to cleaner energy, but often the amount they are investing in renewable is minuscule in comparison to the amount they invest in fossil fuels.”

To help you spot greenwashing, it can be useful to look out for (genuine) independent ethical accreditations, or ratings online.

Ethical Consumer, for example, publishes ratings and reports on thousands of companies you might be using. Another idea is to look for products with the Soil Association’s Organic Certification.

“Those consumers who have the time might also be advised to do a little digging for themselves,” the spokesperson added. “If the claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”