As we face the reality of the impact of shopping on the environment, companies are catching on to the fact that consumers are willing to make changes to their spending habits if it means helping the planet. A company will do almost anything to convince you that they will most responsibility steward your hard-earned dollars — that you can trust that you are supporting a company that is doing its part in helping the environment, or at the very least not hurting it.

You’d be wise to raise an eyebrow at claims of sustainability and eco-friendliness. The sad reality is that many companies will spend far more time and money on marketing their company as “green” rather than actually doing the work of making their products and
practices sustainable.

This is called “greenwashing,” and it’s a dishonest practice that dupes consumers into thinking they are supporting an eco-conscious brand, when really they’re just putting money into the hands of companies with clever PR and marketing teams who may or may not actually care about environmental impact.

Supporting sustainable companies really does make a difference because it puts pressure on other brands to adopt eco-friendly practices. After all, money rules the world, right? But we as consumers have to be privy to which companies are actually walking the walk and which are using clever language to trick and distract us.

How to spot greenwashing:

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing published the “six sins of greenwashing,” which you can use to spot the practice in marketing materials:

1. The Hidden Trade-off:

Suggesting a product is “green” based on a single attribute, such as marketing the recycled content of paper without paying attention to manufacturing impacts such as air emissions, water emissions, and global warming impacts or marketing office technology (such as printers, copiers, and fax machines) that promote energy efficiency without attention to hazardous material content, indoor air quality, or compatibility with recycled paper or remanufactured toner cartridges.

Look for other information that gives a more complete picture of the environmental impact of the product. “Okay, this product comes from a sustainably harvested forest, but what are the impacts of its milling and transportation? Is the manufacturer also trying to reduce those impacts?”

2. No Proof:

Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. An example is personal care products (such as shampoos and conditioners) that claim not to have been tested on animals but offer no evidence or certification of this claim.

It may not be reasonable to expect a product label or a point-of-purchase brochure to provide detailed scientific explanations of a green claim. It is, however, reasonable to expect a product label or brochure to direct you to where you can find further evidence. Good green marketing helps the consumer find the evidence and learn more. Company websites, third-party certifiers, and toll-free phone numbers are easy and effective means of delivering proof.

3. Vagueness:

A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer. Look out for words such as:

“Non-toxic” — Everything is toxic in sufficient dosage. Even water, oxygen, and salt are all potentially hazardous.

“All-natural” — Arsenic is natural. So are uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde. All are poisonous.

“Green,” “environmentally-friendly,” and “eco-conscious” are meaningless without elaboration.

4. Irrelevance:

Making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. It is irrelevant and distracts the consumer from finding a truly greener option. For example, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — a contributor to ozone depletion — have been legally banned for almost 30 years, but that doesn’t stop marketers from touting “CFC-free” on products, as if that somehow poses a unique environmental advantage despite the fact that all products have been CFC-free for decades.

Ask yourself if the claim is important and relevant to the product. (If a light bulb claimed water efficiency benefits, you should be suspicious.) Comparison-shop (and ask the competitive vendors). If the claim seems illogical and disconnected from the product, it may very well be irrelevant.

5. Lesser of Two Evils:

These are “green” claims that may be true within the product category but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Examples include organic cigarettes or “green” insecticides and herbicides. (Commercial insecticides and herbicides are essential to some agricultural applications. In those circumstances, choosing the greenest option is essential. However, insecticides and pesticides may be unnecessary for many cosmetic applications, such
as lawns.)

6. Fibbing:

Environmental claims that are simply false. This is rare, but when it does happen, it often includes misusing or misrepresenting a certification.