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Greenwashing: the kind of washing no one needs

By Rider University Eco-Rep Ashlyn Whiteside

Originally Published: February 23, 2022

Walking through the grocery aisle, you grab a can of tuna off the shelf because you noticed the label reads “dolphin-safe.” Being an advocate for sustainability, you smile and add it to your cart because that label means dolphins are protected from bycatch in tuna fishing.

But how safe is “dolphin-safe?” Tuna fisheries use massive nets which make it extremely hard to isolate one species, so how many dolphins are injured or killed before it’s not dolphin-safe, and how can it be monitored? You might think commercial fishing is just someone’s job, but at the end of the day, wouldn’t the company sell just as much tuna even if it wasn’t “dolphin-safe?”

With many corporations appealing to the activist generation’s demands, questions are rising about the intentions behind these eco-friendly claims. Advertisements have always proven powerful to sales, and in a free-reign capitalist country where the consumer is the most powerful asset, many companies’ advertising and marketing efforts will do anything to target the consumer’s desires — even if it’s misleading.

Greenwashing is an advertising tactic where anything, from a process to a product, is made to seem more sustainable than it actually is. Since today’s consumer wants sustainable clothing, food, artwork, makeup, farming, ethical working conditions and more, corporations are racing to find a sustainability claim. In fact, in a recent survey from Cargill, more than half of all global consumers are more likely to purchase an item that has a sustainable claim or label. While a good number of corporations (like certified B-corporations) and local businesses are making a huge effort to reduce their environmental footprint and are successfully making huge strides in sustainable business today, there are quite a lot of corporations that are not. So how do you spot these misleading advertisements and how do you know if they’re false?

According to EcoWatch, greenwashing can be broken down into a few categories. The first is hidden trade-offs, where a company will advertise a “newer” and “greener” product, but not mention the equally bad trade-off. For example, Starbucks introduced a new lid that was designed to encourage customers to skip the straw, however, the lid uses more plastic than the old lid and straw combined.

Second, there is selective disclosure, where the details selected to disclose on an advertisement are incomplete, and therefore misleading. Essentially, this is the fine print of greenwashing. An example is anything that says “biodegradable.” Bioplastics degrade thousands of years quicker than petroleum plastics, but the specific conditions required for bioplastics to decompose rarely occur in landfills as it involves oxygen and sunlight. Senior musical theater major Timmy Bradford said, “That’s why I just bring my reusables with me everywhere.”

Next, there are symbolic actions, where a corporation will bring attention to a minor action that has very little impact on the overall footprint. An example of this is Urban Outfitters’ and Free People’s reusable bags that you get when you check out. These bags are essentially walking advertisements for the corporation and are surface greenwashing for the fast-fashion disasters that dominate the brands.

Most commonly seen and sometimes the hardest to debunk is vagueness. This is where the advertisement uses broad, sweeping statements about the product’s sustainability to mislead the consumer. An example is coffee K-cups: the box says “pods are recyclable,” but to recycle the K-cup you have to open the pod, empty the grounds, and wash the filter out.

Through all the fog, navigating sustainable businesses can be daunting and overwhelming.

Senior arts and entertainment industry management major Sara Burke said, “Google literally has all the answers. If you just do the research, you’ll be able to see right through it and maybe even laugh at it.”

While we can’t stop greenwashing, we can do things to avoid falling in its trap like questioning sustainable labels and claims, supporting certified B-corps like Patagonia and Athleta and local businesses, understanding the difference between green marketing and greenwashing and looking for products with third-party certifications like USDA certified organic and Carbon Trust Standard. Lastly, and most importantly, by spreading our knowledge and calling out greenwashing when we see it, we can keep the corporations that surround us accountable and bring the entire market to a higher standard.

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