Greenwashing: a Simple Definition and Why it Needs to Stop Right Now
I remember the first time I heard the word “greenwashing”, I was confused. I thought “Well, If they are washing and cleaning up their practices, surely that should be celebrated, right?”. Yet the word seemed to always be used negatively. Well, of course, I was completely off track and had no clue what I was talking about at the time. And I know I wasn’t the only one. So what is greenwashing? To this day, I get asked this question over and over again, pretty much every week. So today, we’ll answer it!
Greenwashing: a Predatory Marketing Practice
I have to say: not knowing the definition of greenwashing – and its symptoms – was pure bliss, to be honest. The truth is, once you become aware of it, it’s hard to wrap your head around how savvy some marketing teams are. Once you start understanding what greenwashing is and seeing it everywhere, it’s hard not to get discouraged or exhausted. And that’s exactly happened to me – not the discouraging part, but definitely the exhaustion part.
I thought I was doing the right thing: I would try to only buy products that were branded as “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, “sustainable”, etc. If a fashion brand was releasing a “green collection”, I would rejoice, thinking this is exactly what needed to happen to make things better, and I would exclusively buy from that “sustainable” line.
And you know what? That’s precisely what these marketing teams want you to do. Take what they say at face value, recognise that they’re making an effort, and run with it – and most of all, give them your money, as a reward for their good behaviour.
Am I being cynical? Maybe, but so are they! They count on the general public’s ignorance, capitalise on what they see as a trend, and put their profit first as always. And that’s what makes greenwashing such a predatory marketing technique. It’s all about pushing consumption, and pushing the right messaging, while doing none of the real work behind the scenes.
Ok so, greenwashing is terrible, we got it. But I still haven’t answered the question: What is the definition of greenwashing?
What is the Definition of Greenwashing?
There are a lot of elements to take into consideration when talking about greenwashing, obviously. But I’m not here to make things complicated. So I’ll give you my straightforward definition of greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a marketing strategy. The goal is for the brand to push a message, and give the impression that the brand/company wants to implement more sustainable practices into the business; without actually doing the work, and without actually caring, or making sustainability a core value of their business model.
When a company engages in greenwashing, they’ll do everything in their power for you to know all the new initiatives and projects they are putting in place to look like they care about the people and the planet. The reality is: they are not willing to change any significant part of their business model, and will keep putting profit first.
When a company engages in greenwashing, they’ll do everything in their power for you to know all the new initiatives and projects they are putting in place to look like they care about the people and the planet.
The most apparent consequence of greenwashing is that after this strategy doesn’t profit the business anymore, they’ll drop the “sustainability” talk, and move on to the next trend that can benefit them.
We have prime examples of this happening, especially in the fashion industry. Some fast fashion brands will be quick to let everybody know that they’re banning plastic bags from their stores – finally – or that they are launching a new “green” collection, but they still have millions of pieces made of polyester being delivered every week in their stores, and being manufactured in ways that disregard entirely human rights.
Why is Greenwashing a Problem?
Ok so now that we have a better understanding a somewhat working definition of greenwashing: why is it a problem? I’m glad you asked! The problem with greenwashing is that it’s deceptive. And as someone working to make sustainability achievable for all, this is probably one of the trickiest things to navigate when first starting with sustainability.
When I started to become aware of the way I needed to change my consumption habits, I was all in, and I know you’re probably trying to go all-in as well; and greenwashing techniques can make it seem impossible for a beginner – and even for more advanced sustainability enthusiasts.
You want to do the right thing, read the labels, embrace green initiatives and feel that what you’re doing helps the cause. The reality is: noticing how prevalent greenwashing is can be too overwhelming and even discouraging.
The main problem, of course, is the lack of transparency. But deeper than that, it’s also giving the buyers the hope and the illusion that things are getting better, and the company is an agent for change when really they’re not.
The three pillars of sustainability require every business, institution, or company, to find the balance between the Planet, the People and Profit. And greenwashing exploits the former two, to increase and put the latter above everything else — even more than they’re already doing. For businesses, being seen as ethical drives more profit and more sales, through deceiving language and techniques.
How to Spot Greenwashing?
Now that we have a definition of greenwashing and we know why it’s a problem; the next question is how to spot it? That’s the hardest bit, but that’s also the most important thing we need to know. And the answer is actually quite simple: we need to hold brands accountable, and we need to demand transparency.
I have a full post on how to spot greenwashing, that you can read for 7 practical ways to spot greenwashing; but I’m going to summarise it here for you.
Sustainable marketing is drastically different from traditional marketing. A brand that is continually pushing consumption and new products on you might not be as sustainable as they claim. And speaking of claims, let me say this: Claims are not evidence. If things don’t look clear to you, and you don’t understand what exactly is sustainable about a brand, then a little bit of digging might be necessary.
But one thing I one to say is this: if you are new to sustainable living, I commend you. This is an admirable choice, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about not always being able to spot greenwashing. Heck, even professional like myself sometimes get fooled by these marketing techniques – but we’re getting there! Remember, we are playing against PR campaigns and marketing teams who are continually studying these things, and analysing what we want to hear.
So if you’re new to this all, I say don’t worry about it too much for now. Get used to trying your best, doing your research and thinking of your current habits. As this becomes second nature, you will start developing a more acute sense of “greenwashing spotting”. And it will get easier.