Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Author: Lucia Fernandez (she/her); Title Credit: Anna Huschka (she/her)
Greenwashing is no new concept-- in fact, the term has been increasingly used for nearly forty years since it was first coined in the 1980’s (1). Since concern about climate change began to rise, companies and corporations started advertising their products to meet consumer demands. According to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (1), environmental awareness has spiked across the world in recent years, and with it, so has greenwashing.
What is Greenwashing?
The term is a simple way of referring to a product, service, or company which claims to be environmentally friendly, but upon close inspection, is quite the opposite (1). The reality is that many companies put more effort into advertising their products as eco-friendly than minimizing their environmental footprint (1). Greenwashing is done through the use of words such as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, or ‘eco-friendly’, packaging with earth toned colours and images, as well as covering up poor environmental records (1). The goal is to trick consumers into purchasing a product or supporting a brand that they think is making a positive impact, even hiking up the prices of their so-called ‘green’ products because most people are willing to pay more for these items (1).
Many terms that are used in advertising go unregulated, which means that practically any product can claim to be ‘eco friendly’, but not meet any true environmental standards (1). So what are the best ways to spot a product or brand that is masquerading under these false claims?
1. Look out for imagery and words that can be misleading (1)
2. Identify the regulated terms and logos (1)
3. Research environmentally friendly brands (1)
With climate change on the rise, the general public is increasingly encouraged to take action in their day to day lives: take shorter showers, shop with reusable bags, recycle, use public transportation, and more (2). Though these simple switches are certainly helpful, CDP’s recent Carbon Major Report identified that just 100 energy companies have been responsible for 71% of all industrial emissions since human-driven climate change was officially recognized (3). Other corporations, such as food and beverage companies, also contribute to large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (3). Though many corporations have recently set targets for reducing their environmental impact, these projections often exclude emissions from the product’s entire lifecycle and its effect on the environment (4). This means that the emissions produced during the harvesting and refining of raw materials, as well as the emissions produced after purchase when the consumer uses and disposes of the product, are not included within corporation environmental targets (4). For example, much of the virgin fibre pulp needed to make tissue products is derived from boreal forests in Canada, which are some of the last remaining intact forests in the world (5). Logging to produce these products cuts down more than a million acres of forest each year (5). This means that although a company’s environmental plans may seem beneficial, the reality is that there is not much of a difference (4). In order to truly make change on this front, companies must commit to an eco-friendly process through all the stages - from sourcing, to manufacturing, to packaging, to selling, and ultimately, to disposal (4). As such, it is vital that corporations reduce their environmental impacts as quickly as possible (4). Tissue companies can ease the environmental strain during their sourcing stage by relying on sustainably sourced or recycled pulps (5).
With more and more consumers on the lookout for greenwashing, some companies have decided to launch an environmentally friendly line of products that is separate from their regular line (1). Environmental advocates warn to watch out for this because although the products in these new lines may often be environmentally friendly themselves, the parent company widely continues with their unsustainable and unethical production practices (1).
There are many brands that attempt to portray themselves as environmentally friendly by developing an eco-friendly line of products. For example, H&M began a recycling program for customers and launched their ‘Conscious’ clothing line in 2010 where products are made up of eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton (6). Studies found that consumers who viewed H&M’s green marketing advertisements were excited by the company’s environmental efforts and felt driven to purchase from them as a result (7). However, through H&M’s recycling program, just 35% of what is collected is recycled (8). Environmental activists question the company’s sustainability claims as they continue their fast fashion business model of producing half a billion garments a year (8). The fast fashion business model is designed to produce large quantities of clothes inexpensively to be sold according to seasonal trends, resulting in lower quality items which are not made to last (8). This business model contributes to the mass discarding of unwanted textiles to landfills every year (8). This practice is also connected to the outsourcing of production to the economically and socially disadvantaged countries with cheaper labour costs to lower manufacturing costs, which further leads to the mistreatment of garment workers in sweatshops (9).
What are the sins of Greenwashing?
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc, a Canadian based environmental consulting corporation which helps corporate purchasers and consumers identify environmentally conscious products, has identified the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’ (10). Their 2007 and 2009 reports have gained attention worldwide, and since then, the number of products that avoid greenwashing increased by 3.5% between 2007 and 2010 alone (11). TerraChoice was acquired by Underwriter’s Laboratories of Canada in 2010, an independent and non-profit product safety testing, certification, and inspection organization which has been accredited by Standards Council of Canada and International Accreditation Service (10). UL of Canada continues TerraChoice’s operations under their Environment division to help support the growth and development of sustainable products, services and companies (10), and the seven sins can currently be found on UL’s website (12).
Consumers should keep the following sins in mind when shopping or making decisions regarding a brand.
1. The sin of hidden trade off
The suggestion that an item is environmentally friendly which is based on one or few positive environmental attributes, whilst ignoring its negative environmental attributes (13). This is commonly found to be the case when companies advertise their paper or recycled products as environmentally preferable over plastic, but pay no attention to the process by which content is recycled or how paper is made (13). These processes require large amounts of energy and water consumption, and can in many cases (when irresponsibly managed or unsustainably harvested) lead to forest degradation and loss of biodiversity, all of which are pressing environmental issues. The sin of hidden trade off is the most common sin committed, and although it is not false, it leads consumers to believe that a product is more environmentally conscious than it really is (13). As the number one plastic polluter in the world, Coca Cola frequently commits this sin by stating that they are environmentally responsible because they are focused on recycling their plastics, but the energy and resources needed to recycle the amount of plastic they produce is substantial (14). The company sells more than 1.9 billion plastic bottles of soft drinks every day, and has no target to reduce the number of plastic bottles it manufactures (14). Furthermore, just 12.4% of their bottles are made with recycled materials, and the company has no target to increase the recycled content (14).
2. The sin of no proof
Claims made in advertising, campaigning and product packaging that are not verified or substantiated by supporting evidence is considered a sin of no proof (13). This is common in items such as lights or electronics that claim energy efficiency, personal care products that claim to not be tested on animals, or paper products that claim to be recycled-- all without providing easily accessible verifying evidence (13). TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has found this to be the second most frequently committed sin by companies (13).
3. The sin of vagueness
This sin is committed when products claim to be environmentally friendly through poorly defined and widely unregulated terms such as ‘chemical free’, ‘non-toxic’, ‘all natural’, and ‘green’ (13). This can also be the case for images, most commonly the Möbius Loop that is intended to represent an item as being made from recycled materials. Many companies place this symbol on their products but do not make a qualifying statement regarding how much of the product is actually recycled, leading consumers to believe that they are purchasing a 100% recycled product when the reality can be significantly lower (13). Another example is Clorox ‘Green Works’ products, which are marketed as green, all-natural products, however, contain not-so-eco friendly ingredients such as corn-based ethanol and sodium lauryl sulfate (15). Though the company is transparent in that they clearly list all of their product ingredients on the packaging and website, only those that conduct additional research are able to find the reality of the product’s environmental impact (16). This is an example of the importance of consumer attentiveness and researching trust-worthy labels.
4. The sin of worshipping false labels
This sin was added in TerraChoice’s latest report from 2009 (17). This is when a product claims to have a third-party endorsement of environmentally beneficial nature where no endorsement exists. This can be done through words or images which are ultimately fake (17). TerraChoice reported that brands within their research study engaged in this sin by using certification-like images stating a product’s sustainability, and included labels such as ‘eco-safe’ and ‘eco-preferred’ (17). Since then, the Canadian government has announced that placing these false logos, or otherwise stating any false or vague claims, is illegal under the Competition Act (18). Seeing how labels can appear legitimate, consumers should be aware of the verified labels on the market to effectively distinguish them from illegitimate ones (17).
5. The sin of irrelevance
This is when products make an environmental claim which is largely irrelevant and is meant to be distracting from options that are truly more sustainable (13). Many of these products, ranging from insecticides, oven cleaners, and fridges, claim to be ‘climate and ozone friendly’ because they do not use ingredients such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which contribute to ozone depletion (13). Unsuspecting consumers may feel inclined to purchase the product on the grounds that it sounds more innovative and eco-friendly. However, this claim is irrelevant because no products on the market are made with CFCs since they were legally banned in Canada about thirty years ago under the Montreal Protocol (13).
6. The sin of lesser of two evils
Items that claim to be environmentally sustainable under a certain product category with ‘greener options’ can cause distraction to consumers from the greater impacts of the category as a whole (13). This is widely the case with items such as ‘green’ insecticides (13). In many cases, the insecticides are unnecessary altogether, such as in cosmetic applications common in yard use (13). Though these items may be more environmentally conscious than their competitors, consumers who are concerned with sustainability should be discouraged from purchasing them altogether (13).
7. The sin of fibbing
As the name suggests, this sin involves making environmental claims that are simply inaccurate (13). Although this is the least common sin committed, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that some shampoo companies would claim that their products were ‘organic certified’, a dishwasher detergent claimed to be packaged in ‘100% recycled paper’, and a caulking product claimed to be Energy Star certified when some further investigation proved these to be entirely false (13). As a case example, the agrochemical company Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer in 2018, blatantly states that they are committed to preserving biodiversity, protecting freshwater sources, and mitigating climate change (19), but their glyphosate-based herbicide contaminates soil, kills plants, and heavily pollutes rivers (20).
Overall, lack of transparency is the common denominator in all green-washed products, and sins often overlap (1). Looking for these sins when shopping or researching new products and brands helps consumers identify whether they should purchase an item or support a company.
Canadian Environmental Logos and Claims
There are several labels and logos (21) to look for on Canadian products, and consumers should be able to identify what they each mean. It is important to note that SUTE does not endorse these labels, and they should not be considered to be perfect certifying organizations. These logos are simply some of the most consistent environmental labels found which are backed by the Canadian government, and offer a good starting point for environmentally conscious consumers.
Credit: Underwriters Laboratories https://www.ul.com/resources/ecologo-certification-program
The EcoLogo, otherwise known as the Environmental Choice, certifies that a product or item has met a set of strict environmental standards that are a reflection of their entire life span (21). Only the top 20% of products available on the market are able to meet the standards to receive this certification (21). The products that do obtain this certification have undergone scientific testing and exhaustive auditing to prove compliance with strict environmental performance standards (22).
Credit: Energy Star https://www.energystar.gov/
The Energy Star logo is an international symbol which certifies a product’s energy efficiency (21). Energy Star is government backed to provide consumers and businesses with a credible and unbiased informational source on a product’s performance. This certification is commonly found on electrical items such as lights, appliances, cooling and heating systems, as well as windows, doors, and skylights (21). Products that obtain this certification have been tested by a third party to ensure that the item is producing as little energy waste as possible, effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, demand for energy imports, and lowering electricity costs (23). It is important to note that Energy Star, in a majority of categories, is a self-certification by the manufacturer, leaving it vulnerable to fraud (1). Energy Star and the Canadian government warn consumers to beware of deceptive sales tactics which claim to represent Energy Star products (24). Consumers are encouraged to verify product labels by referring to Energy Star’s list of participants (25).
Credit: Government of Canada https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy-efficiency/energuide/12523
The Canadian EnerGuide label lists a product’s estimated annual energy consumption and compares it to that of similar products on the market (19). This label is frequently found on household appliances, heating and cooling equipment, and automobiles (21). This label’s unique comparative model allows consumers to find the most energy efficient product within a category of products (26).
There are internationally recognized labels frequently used in Canada, all of which provide an independent, third-party certification that a product is sourced from a sustainably kept forest (21).
The first label is from the independent, third-party Canadian Standards Association Group, which has more than 100 years of experience with product verification and testing (27). It certifies that a product has undergone expert testing and inspection that ensures it has met rigorous forest management laws and regulations in compliance with world-recognized standards for sustainability (27). Products undergo annual surveillance audits which are publicly disclosed and conserve biodiversity (27). The CSA standard is the leading forest certification standard in Canada, as well as the first national sustainable forest management system in the world (28). About 41 million hectares are certified by CSA (28).
Credit: Forest Stewardship Council https://ca.fsc.org/en-ca
The second label is from the independent, third-party Forest Stewardship Council, which protects rare and endangered forests and wildlife (29). Their verification process is transparent and publicly disclosed (29). This verification ensures that products have been sourced from responsibly and sustainably managed forests (21). It provides a useful checklist of items that must be managed in order to reliably produce wood over time (28). About 53 million hectares are certified by FSC (28).
Credit: Sustainable Forestry Initiative https://www.forests.org/
The third label is from the independent, third-party Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which certifies that a product is sourced from a sustainably managed forest or has been responsibly sourced from a non-certified forest (30). This is important as 90% of the world’s forests are uncertified, and SFI ensures that best practices such as broadening biodiversity, protection of water quality, and investment in forestry research are completed whilst working on these lands (31). SFI standards are in depth, including management system requirements as well as water quality, conservation, and species protection standards (28). About 80 million hectares are certified by SFI (28).
Credit: B Corporation https://bcorporation.net/about-b-lab/country-partner/canada
This is the B Corp Logo which confirms that a company has met high social and environmental standards overall (21). These corporations have successfully passed rigorous assessments that review the business’s social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability (32).
Credit: FairTrade Canada https://fairtrade.ca/for-business/getting-fairtrade-certified/
This is the Fair Trade Logo which communicates the promotion of sustainable development and companies who are committed to improving the standards of workers in developing countries--this includes giving producers and workers an equal say and vote as partners (33). This helps with protecting their livelihood with a guaranteed minimum income which covers the cost of sustainable production while also providing a FairTrade Premium, which is an additional sum of money that goes into a communal fund and is spent autonomously by the workers (33). Further attention is also given to the development of sustainable production measures that are independently audited (33). Products with this label are certifiably socially, economically, and environmentally responsible (21). This symbol is internationally recognized as an independent ethical certification logo and is backed by the Canadian government (33). Still, critics of this certification state that the FairTrade system remains flawed and requires improvements, for example, ensuring that the premiums that consumers pay go directly to farmers (34).
Credit: Government of Canada https://inspection.canada.ca/organic-products/eng/
This Canadian Organic logo certifies that products meet organic production standards and contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (21). The producing companies must also meet sustainable and ethical environmental practices, which are all continuously regulated and audited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency according to the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime (35).
The recycling symbol, or Möbius loop, is in the public domain (not trademarked) and demonstrates that a product is made out of recycled materials, is recyclable, or both (21). These symbols are only valid when the percentage of the product’s recycled content is clearly stated on the product, typically within the Möbius loop itself (23). Without the qualifying statement, this symbol misleads buyers and causes confusion regarding how much of the product is recycled (13). Thus, providing the percentage of the product’s recycled content prevents the spread of misleading information, and consumers should be looking for the explanatory statements to support the claim (21).
Products that are not tested on animals hold environmental benefits as well (36). This is due to the fact that animal testing produces large amounts of air and water pollution, has adverse impacts on biodiversity, contributes to high carbon emissions, and consumes large amounts of energy (36).
The following are some of the verified logos which certify that a product is not tested on animals:
Credit: Leaping Bunny Programme https://www.leapingbunny.org/leaping-bunny-logo
The Leaping Bunny logo by Cruelty Free International certifies that cosmetic and household product companies do not conduct animal testing, do not purchase ingredients or products that were tested on animals from a third party, and do not allow animal testing to be done on their behalf in foreign countries (37). Thus, this certification ensures that companies are free of animal testing at all stages of product development (37). To learn more, visit their website (37).
The CCF Rabbit by Choose Cruelty Free certifies that a brand does not test on animals throughout their entire supply chain, and that they have not been testing on animals for a minimum of five years (38). Companies must also not sell their products in countries where animal testing is required by law, including China (38). To learn more, visit their website (38).
Not all companies that are environmentally friendly or cruelty-free certified may choose to display the logos on their package. Some certifying organizations, such as Cruelty Free International, charge an extra fee in order to license the logo on packaging or websites (39). However, interested consumers can always search online databases of the certifying organizations to see which companies are registered with them.
To expand knowledge and research other eco labels and claims around the world, individuals may visit the EcoLabel Index (40), Global EcoLabelling (41), or Greener Choices EcoLabels (42). Canada’s Environmental Claim Guide (43) is also an excellent resource to understand how environmental standards are applied in the country.
Reflecting on this Earth Day...
This Earth Day marks the 51st anniversary of its celebration; it is a reminder for us to reflect on how we hold space in our environments and the large-scale impacts of our actions. Ensuring greener choices and habits during this day means educating ourselves so that we may be mindful of the sins of greenwashing and make decisions to avoid committing them. With constant learning and unlearning, the collective actions of consumers will move away from damaging to become more informed and productive.
Hello, Bonjour, my name is Lucia Fernandez, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I live in what is currently known as Newmarket, Ontario Canada, the traditional territories of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and the Anishinaabe peoples. The treaties of this land includes the Williams Treaties of 1923, which have greatly disadvantaged the original peoples of this land in many ways, including but not limited to unfair compensation for the land, disruption of harvesting rights, inadequate reserve lands, and ongoing denials of justice. I am cisgender woman of Latin ancestry. I immigrated to Ontario, Canada when I was four years old and have lived here ever since. My experience as a first-generation, Latina immigrant greatly impacts my perspectives and understanding of the world. I acknowledge those in my community who made it possible for me to live where I am today. However, I only speak on behalf of myself and do not intend to speak for others, whether or not they are in my community. I am passionate about environmental and societal justice, and I am privileged to be in the process of obtaining a post-secondary education in Political Science and Environmental Sustainability. This greatly inspires me to continue learning and working towards the goal of holding those in positions of power accountable.
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