Greenwashing: How to spot dirty tactics brands are using to 'go green'

·3-min read

This article is part of the Yahoo series ‘Simple Ways To Save The Planet’

Being green is big business, with one study showing 66% of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for sustainable products that appear to be socially and environmentally responsible.

But shoppers are increasingly being warned to use caution when buying “environmentally friendly” products, with advertised terms like compostable, recyclable and organic not always what they seem.

The practice of "greenwashing" involves companies making misleading or exaggerated claims about everything from eggs to soap, and is used to garner an edge over competitors on supermarket shelves. 

Watch: What is greenwashing?

Eco-influencer Mandy Spooner told Yahoo News that companies which make false claims damage the reputation of those doing the right thing, by “eroding confidence” consumers have in green brands.

“It’s such a shame and it's really immoral that it’s happening,” she said.

“Companies are under a lot of pressure to move to eco-friendly products and packaging because consumers are looking for this, so companies are unfortunately saying that they are further down that path (of sustainability) than they actually are.”

Common tricks companies use to greenwash their products

Greenwashing can have consequences for manufacturers. 

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published a Green Claims Code to ensure companies' environmental claims comply with law. 

Speaking at the time of its unveiling, minister of state for energy and clean growth, Greg Hands, said: “Millions of UK households are rightly choosing to switch to green products as they look to reduce their carbon footprint. 

"But it’s only right that this commitment is backed up by transparent claims from businesses.

“The competition regulator’s new code will help to ensure this with advice on how best to communicate and understand environmental claims."

Left - a woman drinking from a single use plastic water bottle. Right - aerial view of polluted water.
Greenwashing involves misleading consumers about a product's environmental credentials. (Getty Images)

Some of the tricks companies use include using natural looking imagery, emotive slogans like “save the planet”, and vague terminology like “environmentally friendly”.

Even words like biodegradable and compostable can be more complicated that they appear at first, with many products unable to be processed in a backyard compost bin, and instead needing specific commercial conditions to break down.

Why recyclable doesn't mean it will be recycled

Another commonly greenwashed product is bottled water which, despite being marketed as natural and pure, is usually bottled in plastic and trucked thousands of kilometres, using vast amounts of petroleum. 

With demand for more environmentally friendly rubbish bags, some brands which advertise as "green" only contain a small amount of plant-based material and are mostly plastic.

A woman holding a shopping basket in front of the dairy section in a supermarket and looking at her phone.
Consumers who are suspicious about a product's green credentials are advised to email the manufacturer. (Getty Images)

Recyclable is another term to beware of, just because a product can be recycled, it doesn't mean it will be. 

Of the massive 3.4 million tonnes of plastic consumed in a year in Australia, only around 12% is recycled.

One easy hack to ensure you're buying truly sustainable products

A simple rule of thumb that Spooner recommends consumers follow is to always turn the packaging around and read the fine print. 

If the claims on the back are vague or hard to understand, it only takes a couple of minutes to email a company with a question or two.

This needn't be a time consuming process, because once shoppers develop a list of trusted products, they can shop quickly and with confidence.

Spooner believes consumers have an obligation to ensure the products they are buying are ethical and sustainable as the choices made while shopping today will impact the future. 

"Being a mum absolutely does inform my decisions," she said. 

"I do a lot of what I do for my children and for generations to come."

Words by Michael Dahlstrom

Watch: How to make plastic recycling super simple

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