Glossary of Greenwashing

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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:

‘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?

‘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.

‘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?

‘Locally grown’

There can be many social and environmental benefits to locally-grown food. It probably involves fewer food miles, for example. But it’s possible to be locally grown and also produced in a way that harms the land and spews out greenhouse gases. Environmentally friendly food growers should have clear polices on things like soil conservation, minimising the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, conserving biodiversity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the way the food is produced, not just in the way it’s transported.

‘Natural’

This means almost nothing. Have you ever noticed how the word ‘natural’ is almost always used to sell products that have been through many stages of processing? Calling something ‘natural’ is often a red flag that it is anything but.

‘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.

I should add the caveat, though, that it is far easier for larger businesses to fully trace their supply chains than it is for smaller ones, as it can be so expensive, which is one of the reasons why fewer small-to-medium businesses certify their products. ( So it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying to you……)

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

‘Plastic-free’

What do they use instead of plastic, 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.

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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