Greenwashing: how to spot it

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So, you want to do the right thing, but you’re well aware that businesses can profit by calling something ‘green’ and putting the price up. So what to do?

Let’s unpick some of the most common claims:

‘Environmentally Friendly’

What does this mean? Compared to what? Everything we consume has some kind of impact. Anyone selling something with that claim should be able to explain how it’s better for the environment than the alternative. The most environmentally friendly option is always to consume less.

‘Biodegradable’

Great, but is ‘biodegradable’ necessarily better for the environment? ‘Compostable’ products will only decompose properly in the right conditions – if that ‘fully biodegradable’ takeaway carton ends up in landfill, it will give off potent greenhouse gases. And to assess impact, we need to consider the whole life cycle of something – so how was the biodegradable product made, and how were the materials for it sourced?

‘Ethical’

This is a vague self-description which means different things to different people. Are they referring to their entire business model, or just one or two aspects of it? If so, which ones, and do they provide clear policy statements on these?

‘Natural’

Again, what does this mean? If someone is selling a product, then by definition it has been processed.

‘We’re plastic-free’

What do they use instead, and what evidence is there that this is better for the environment? This claim is a red flag that a business has jumped on the proverbial bandwagon without a serious assessment of its environmental footprint.

‘Organic/sustainably sourced’

Is this independently certified? The Soil Assocation and Rainforest Alliance labels set standards for environmental protection, and the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council set standards for sustainable forestry and fishing. The RSPCA mark ensures that farm animals are cared for to certain standards.

Another great resource is Ethical Consumer magazine, a kind of ‘Which?’ magazine for thoughtful consumers.

The simple switch

‘Solve environmental problem x by switching to products made from y and z.’ Don’t we all want to find those planet-loving materials, y and z? Perhaps we could use biodegradable materials instead of plastic. Maybe hemp is the environmentally friendly alternative to cotton. What if we bought it in organic?

It’s fair to say that anything we consume has an environmental impact. Plant based and biodegradable materials all take land, water, and probably fertilisers and pesticides to grow (and if they are grown organically, just need more land). Increasing cropland to grow non-food products will reduce biodiversity and our capacity to feed the increasing global population, while non-living materials, such as oil to make plastics and ores to make metals, need to be extracted from the ground in an energy intensive process.

You can reduce your impact by buying less, or buying second hand, upcycled, or recycled. Otherwise, there is no simple switch that will allow us to consume at current levels while also feeding an extra 2 billion people, while also reducing our impact on the planet.

And…….are smaller, independent businesses always the greenest?

Intuitively, small scale seems like the most environmentally friendly option. You can speak to the owners of small eco businesses and sense their passion for the environment. I know I’d choose the more personal, authentic feel of shopping with a small business than an encounter with a big corporation any day. But many larger brands have sustainability policies based on evidence and carry out formal environmental impact assessments, while many smaller ones don’t appear to have done their homework. So, while there are clearly advantages to smaller, friendlier ways to shop, size and sincerity alone are not always reliable indicators of environmental benefit.

None of this is to suggest that anyone making these claims about their products or businesses must be suspect, just that we should be asking the right questions before we hand over our money. Mainly, just beware of anyone trying to sell you eco-friendly products you didn’t even know you needed. The best thing for the environment is always to consume less.

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