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Why companies use greenwashing to mislead customers

The muddy specifics of recycling are intentionally used by marketers to confuse. Here’s why greenwashing is very much a thing and how can you can avoid misleading advertisements.

Have you ever seen an advertisement that seemed a little too keen to emphasis outlandish environmental credentials that seem to defy logic?

We see plenty of brands claiming to be all about sustainability on a near constant basis in an attempt to attract millennial and Gen Z consumers. Words such as ‘recyclable’, ‘multi-use’, ‘bio-degradable’, and ‘responsibly sourced’ are thrown onto packaging with little definition.

Many of these companies are true to their word and provide genuinely progressive values and practices. Others, however, deliberately flood their campaigns with ambiguous language to make consumers think they’re being green when they’re not – this is known as ‘greenwashing’.

We’re seeing an increase in this tactic as our awareness of plastic becomes more prevalent. What ‘sustainability’ really means is dubious at best, and companies aren’t beneath exploiting this grey area in order to make a buck. So, before another tube ad or billboard lures you into a false sense of clean living, here’s what to look out for, and how you can actually help with the wastage problem.

What should you look out for?

Greenwashing occurs when companies start using words such as ‘sustainable’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘compostable’ without clearly defining what they mean. All of these terms may sound great, but they’re extremely vague. There’s no minimum standard that companies need to meet in order to use this type of language when marketing their products, meaning something may look impressive when it isn’t.

Ambiguous terms without any specific numbers to back claims up is a major red flag. Deezer makes the point that companies often use ‘sustainable’ in comparative terms. So, if you see a product is made ‘sustainably’ this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s made with zero wastage or completely reused materials, it may just mean that this product is slightly less terrible for the environment than its predecessor, or competitor.

It makes sense why companies are adopting these strategies. Younger consumers are now more wary of their carbon footprint than ever before and expect a certain level of awareness from brands they like. By acknowledging the environmental impact of their services, companies can come off looking like the ‘good guy’ that stands for the progressive attitudes of millennials and Gen Zers.

But to actually change your company policies and production methods can be expensive, time consuming, and an all-around effort. Why not greenwash your products, so that you can gain the clout of your younger demographic without actually making any meaningful change?

What’s even more annoying is that this strategy has been proven to work, and is frequently more effective than substantive action. According to a study by the Environment Energy Leader publication in 2012, symbolic actions ‘have a higher impact on market value’ and generate more revenue than if a business actually, you know, did anything real. For most brands, greenwashing is actually a means to growth, and there’s every incentive to try and confuse and mislead customers.

What are some examples of greenwashing?

One current, glaring example is Coca Cola’s ‘sending plastic round in circles’ campaign, which emphasises the company’s use of recycled plastic in some of its bottles. While this advert may make it seem like Coca Cola is on its way to becoming a super sustainable, eco-friendly brand, the reality is that it produces over 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging ever year. This is the equivalent to 200,000 plastic bottles every single minute.

That’s before you consider that recycling single-use plastics probably isn’t the best solution to our wastage problems anyway. In short, Coca Cola’s campaign tries to present an eco-conscious image to inflate sales without actually doing anything of significant merit. Most of its plastics are still single use, produced at a scarily high rate, and have to be recycled in order to be remotely eco-friendly – a process that’s proven to be highly ineffective anyway.

Other companies such as Nestle, H&M, and Volkswagen have come under fire in the last few years for creating deliberately obscure marketing campaigns that give an impression of eco-friendly practices. Volkswagen in particular was found to have cheated emissions tests, fitting cars with software that provided false emission readings.

The fact that companies are willing to actively deceive and cheat their way to being ‘green’ is appalling, and shows a depressingly high level of moral bankruptcy. We should be angry about these types of practices and kicking up a fuss when corporations blatantly exploit the climate crisis for monetary gain. Taking the credit for customers having to recycle your single-use plastic bottles is nowhere near the acceptable benchmark and shouldn’t be used as a way to ‘show off’ your company’s ‘green values’.

What is being done about the problem?

All this cynicism and deception within environmental practices may seem to encourage defeatism. If you’re intentionally being confused, how are you supposed to know what’s okay to use and what isn’t?

There is some good news that might be on the horizon. The UK government has proposed developing standards for bioplastics and biodegradable plastics to prevent wishy-washy language from entering the advertisement space. We could be seeing tighter legal rules around what companies can and can’t say in the future – which is sorely needed. But what about personal habits that you can actively engage with on a day-to-day basis?

What can you do to be more sustainable?

The key to living a genuinely eco-friendlier lifestyle is to reduce the amount of packaging and products you use altogether, rather than just recycling or reusing the ones you buy. For example, use a cup from home for takeaway coffees, always use your own bags for life or backpacks at supermarkets, and pick up fruits and veg without packaging.

It’s also helpful to have a quick Google search of companies you interact with regularly and make sure their advertisements aren’t too misleading. There’s usually plenty of information on the actual practices of big brands online, and you can get clued up through your own research pretty quickly.

Give yourself reasonable and possible targets. Getting your wastage levels down to zero, for example, is almost impossible. But by making the right, small choices when you shop, you can easily cut your carbon footprint down. Check vintage shops for clothes, don’t pick items in shops that have lots of plastic packaging, and consider the long-term duration of the products you buy.

The power is always in consumer hands, and as the climate crisis continues to become more alarming, individual change in behaviours is more important than ever. True ‘sustainability’ comes from zero wastage and renewable energy sources – not a ‘10% less terrible than before’ packaged single-use product.