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

Coca-Cola and Unilever have been named among the latest greenwashing offenders.
Anna Blazhuk via Getty Images

When you’re trying to avoid products that contribute towards climate change, words like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” on packaging can suck you in.

You might also be drawn towards brands and businesses that have made headline-grabbing, green pledges. But unfortunately, not all is as it seems.

Your go-to faves might not be as environmentally-friendly as they claim.

Coca-Cola and Unilever, the company that owns Dove, Wall’s, Vaseline, Ben & Jerry’s and more, are among those found to not live up to all their claims. The two behemoths have been accused of misleading greenwashing practices, according to a new report.

The Changing Markets Foundation said that retailers which are using ‘ocean-bound’ or ‘recyclable’ tags to tackle plastic pollution are some of the worst offenders for greenwashing.

There is little proof these items actually tackle the problem of plastic waste, says the foundation, and they also contribute large amounts of pollution.

Marketing ploys like this are known as greenwashing – when companies make spurious environmental claims about their products or services. While some products and brands are actually making environmentally-friendly changes, others are capitalising on the moment, without making a meaningful difference. HuffPost UK has contacted Coca-Cola and Unilever for comment.

George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundations, said: “Our latest investigation exposes a litany of misleading claims from household names consumers should be able to trust. This is just the tip of the iceberg and it is of crucial importance that regulators take this issue seriously.”

Procter & Gamble’s Head and Shoulders, Mentos Mint, and Tesco are some of the other names mentioned in the report for misleading packaging or claims.

“The industry is happy to gloat its green credentials with little substance on the one hand, while continuing to perpetuate the plastic crisis on the other. We are calling out greenwashing so the world can see that voluntary action has led to a market saturated with false claims,” says Harding-Rolls

The Changing Market Foundations report follows a study by the New Climate Institute in November 2021 that found some of the world’s biggest companies are failing to meet their own targets on tackling climate change.

That report concluded that current measures were only likely to reduce emissions by 40% on average, not the 100% implied in the term “net zero”.

And as journalist Sophia Smith Galer pointed out, even some of the sponsors of the COP26 climate conference were 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?

How to spot greenwashing

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 told HuffPost UK that 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.”

We’ve contacted Coca-Cola for comment and a spokesperson told HuffPost UK: We don’t want to see any of our packaging end up where it shouldn’t and we are working hard to be part of the solution. Today, all of our bottles in Great Britain are 100% recyclable and we aim to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030 globally.

“In 2019, about 300 sample Coca-Cola bottles were developed using recovered and recycled marine plastics, with the aim to demonstrate that one day, ocean debris could be used in recycled packaging. Innovative trials like this are essential to finding scalable solutions to reduce the amount of packaging we use.”