Recognizing Greenwashing: A Toolkit to Spot the Fakers
By Aislyn Sax, OPIRG McMaster
So you’ve heard of the term greenwashing, maybe you even read our companion article, Greenwashing: Why it’s more harmful than it seems, and you want a way to identify the companies that could be masking incredibly harmful practices behind the ambiguous or misleading promotion. That’s why we’ve compiled 5 tips that with a quick google search can help you sort the real companies with a purpose from the fakers throwing “green” or “eco-friendly” on any old product.
1. Learn the Frequent Types of Greenwashing
According to WeForum, greenwashing generally takes two forms:
- Selective Disclosure: advertising the positive information about their green practices while hiding the negatives. Ex. Stating that paper towels are green because they come from sustainable forests but not mentioning other aspects of the production that are high emission producers…
- Symbolic Actions: claims that highlight minor issues without any accompanying meaningful action. Ex. A fashion brand donating 10% of purchases to introducing clean water infrastructure while polluting water bodies with manufacturing byproducts.
2. Avoid the Problem Altogether
This tip will depend on the situation, but if you can not buy the product or buy second hand you’re creating the double benefit of avoiding future waste and the resource use.
3. Find the Core Message
One of the hardest parts of identifying greenwashing is differentiating between companies that are merely using valid PR (public relations) statements on recent real green initiatives and those that are doing so to hide their true motives or harmful processes.
A helpful question to ask yourself is: is this promotion putting the environment first or the profit first?
Be wary of companies that are using their commitment to environment sourcing, resource use reduction… as the sole reason to buy the product. This doesn’t guarantee the company is greenwashing but it is more common for greenwashing ads to be the overt “WE ARE ENVIRONMENTAL” type promotions.
4. Look for Consistency
Is this green ad a one-off? Does leadership demonstrate the same green principles in their decisions or corporate policy? (Ex. Do they or their employees fly commercial regularly or are private jets common? Do they encourage public transport in their benefits package…).
Although the “Why Work Here” and Career type pages can be somewhat helpful, finding 3rd party news stories or personal stories from employees can be more telling.
Another great way to identify greenwashing is looking for companies that don’t improve year by year or quarter by quarter. If they are sitting on the laurels of earning a certain designation from back in 2015 it may be an attempt at greenwashing.
5. Check for Actions not Words – Do they understand the meaning/need behind the display
One of the biggest acts of greenwashing at least in my opinion is the all too common phrase “we are pledging net-zero emissions by 2030.” Then there is little to no action towards that goal.
The phrase itself is misleading. Most people assume that it will be a gradual process and the company is committing itself to the goal because it genuinely wants to do better. But the twist here is the company can still be 100% compliant with their 2030 promise and keep everything exactly the same- factories reliant on natural gas instead of renewable electricity- up until December 30th, 2029 when they buy a brand new factory that’s zero-carbon.
But guess who still gets to display that promise in big bold letters all over their website and ads?
Considering that climate scientists all over the world have said action needs to be immediate, this soft commitment of some far-off year means these companies (not to mention governments) are ignoring the necessary but hard work.
We’ve touched on the basics of how common greenwashing is becoming in the “green wave” of consumerism, why greenwashing is harmful and how, unfortunately, the responsibility to identify and act upon that information is all on individuals. Ultimately, critical thinking is the message we are left with, but maybe with enough prompting from individuals, companies using greenwashing will do some of their own critical thinking and realize the practice will come back to bite them in the butt.
Related: Want to get involved with environmental advocacy work at Mac? Divest Mac is a public interest project currently active in campaigning the university to follow through with their inaugural university wide sustainability report of 2021 commitments.