More than a third of British consumers are not just concerned about their environmental impact, but will pay more for products that are less harmful for the planet.
According to the report by Simon-Kucher & Partners, UK consumers are willing to pay an average of 25% more for sustainable alternatives to their usual product or brand.
If we’re more likely to make a purchase and even spend more on it to feel good about our environmental impact, it’s easy to see why companies would be jumping on the eco-bandwagon.
Despite awareness increasing overall, figuring out what a company or product’s environmental impact actually is may have become even harder. Words like ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘natural’ are plastered across packaging and adverts. These are not simply vague but often completely meaningless – and more and more people are deferring to this language rather than engaging with the complexity of the issues themselves.
In this article, the fourth in our series on consumer trends and tactics, we explore ‘greenwashing’: how to spot it, ditch it and find real ways to cultivate consumer habits that are less harmful to the planet.
‘Greenwashing’ is a term that has been around since the 1980s, when the corporate world began to try and mitigate the negative perceptions that consumers had of their products due to the environmental damage they caused.
In those days, it was oil and gas giants like Chevron and Shell, or champions of industrial agriculture like McDonald’s who were the first to try and appeal to consumers increasingly concerned about the planet and climate.
It may seem ironic that oil companies and fast food restaurants led the way in terms of marketing materials designed to cultivate an image of an environmentally conscious brand. But nowadays, it has gone even further, with all kinds of companies peddling ‘eco-friendly’ ‘green-’ or ‘sustainable’ products at the same time as they pollute the planet.
In a nutshell, greenwashing describes how many organisations, attempting to capitalise on the growing demand for environmentally friendly products, will spend more time and resources on marketing products as “eco” than on actually minimising its environmental impact.
A perfect example is fast fashion brands. Shops like ASOS and Boohoo have responded to criticism of their devastating environmental impact with bring-back schemes, charges for returns, and “ethical” clothing lines made from recycled materials.
Yet, numerous investigations have shown that these are often shallow attempts at image management rather than meaningful change.
In many cases, ‘green’ initiatives are just a marketing gimmick that misleads environmentally conscious customers into believing that buying a product isn’t harmful to the planet and its ecological systems.
Even more worrying is the way that these marketing strategies perpetuate the idea that buying their products is itself good for the planet. In other words, making ‘green’ choices with our clothing or cosmetics is where our engagement with these issues begins and ends.
Following a number of litigation cases by international regulators and the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against companies who’ve made misleading environmental claims, it’s harder to put unfounded claims on packaging. Yet there is still a lot of disinformation or deceptive tactics used against consumers.
Classic examples of greenwashing vocabulary are:
While evocative, none of these words really means anything specific or measurable by themselves.
This one is used a lot to refer to the types of materials used to make the product – ones that are easily renewed like bamboo. However, even if a product seems ‘sustainable’ the company that manufactures it should be considered too.
Apparently ‘sustainable’ products can be made by dirty companies. For example, an energy efficient lightbulb made by a factory that pollutes rivers. Or a vegan burger produced by a company that cuts down old growth rainforest to grow soybeans.
This is a popular term companies use to suggest that they have tried to counter any emissions produced during manufacturing. ‘Carbon off-setting’ works through schemes like planting more trees to make up for the ones cut down. However, recent revelations have shown that a lot of carbon off-setting schemes are much less effective than they’ve been portrayed to be.
Just because the company has taken some steps to mitigate their impact, this may not be enough to fully discount their activities as entirely ‘neutral’.
The promotion of organic products began with the agricultural industry and products like meat, milk, eggs and veg. What it is supposed to mean is that the product has been grown without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides. However, it doesn’t give any information about production beyond this.
Things like the wages of the workers who make, process or package the product, or the amount of emissions produced by it are ignored completely. For instance, a piece of beef can be organic, but as with all red meats, has an extremely high emissions count.
This is a more and more common claim, as customers seek to minimise the amount of plastics entering the ecosystem and staying there for hundreds of years. Yet, there are some important caveats.
Unlike something that is ‘home compostable’ many things labelled as biodegradable would only biodegrade when exposed to extremely high temperatures. Which is to say, if not disposed of as intended, products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ can still give off gases which harm to the ecosystem or take decades or longer to decompose in landfill.
Just because something is the colour green it doesn’t make it less environmentally harmful. Same goes for the pictures of mountain streams on a plastic bottle of water, or a smiling cow on your yoghurt pot.
There are many people who have pointed out that there is no such thing as “ethical consumption” – the most ethical thing to buy is nothing, or second-hand, so that no more resources have to be extracted from the earth.
Rather than letting your buying habits be your only response to climate change, we should think about ways they can reflect our broader approach to this challenge – which asks us to educate ourselves on issues that we may not have considered before.
There’s a fine line between green marketing and greenwashing. Unlike greenwashing, green marketing is when companies sell products or services based on legitimate environmental positives. Unlike greenwashing, green marketing provides actual information about a company’s practices and how a product has been manufactured and transported.
To consume more sustainably, focus less on snazzy branding or taglines, and instead on the information provided. This includes:
Make sure whatever you buy is free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances. Perhaps it is made from renewable materials – things like bamboo – rather than finite resources or materials that will end up being pollution.
Ask yourself: is this product designed to be repairable rather than disposable? Is the product recyclable or produced from recycled materials? Does it manage to avoid using excessive packaging? How long can I anticipate it’s lifespan being – and how would I dispose of it safely when I need to?
Another part of a product’s impact is how far it has travelled to get to you. So if your tinned pears were picked in Peru, packaged in Thailand and sold in a UK supermarket this will be a super-high emissions product.
We as consumers are not always given a clear insight into all aspects of the production process, including how far something was shipped or flown to get to you. However, buying locally sourced goods – things grown or manufactured within the UK or EU – are a pretty safe bet to if you want to reduce your impact.
Nature includes humans too. If you care about the planet, you should be thinking about the living and working conditions of people around the world whose labour is often exploited by harmful industries and governments who fail to implement environmental regulations.
Products made in Bangladesh, Turkey, Guatemala or the Philippines are likely to be made by workers who are not fairly paid in conditions which are harmful to human, animal, plant and planetary health.
Companies that take their workers standards of living seriously will likely promote this on their packaging or website. Look for products marked as Fairtrade – a scheme which aims to improve standards of living for farmers and farm workers, including their income, and job and food security as well as more sustainable farming practices.
Our personal habits of buying cheap products – like a flimsy toy, a Christmas jumper or fancy dress costume you’ll probably wear once, or a novelty gadget – needs to change if we want to see bigger transformation of social attitudes and practices.
Get in the habit of asking yourself the question “Do I really need this?” Even if a purchase feels necessary, is it possible to rent or borrow the item from a friend, a local business or via a library of things. Maybe you could find one that is second-hand in a charity shop, a sharing platform like Olio or on a selling platform like eBay.
There won’t be tons of advertising on billboards or social media encouraging you to do this – but making this your first thought when considering a purchase may have a huge impact on your shopping habits over time.
For more advice on shifting your mindset into a different mode, and understanding the tactics and techniques used to shape our shopping habits, see our series on ‘consumer trends and tactics’.
If you have any thoughts on this topic, or any other consumer issues you would like us to cover, feel free to get in touch with us at email@example.com.