Companies use greenwashing terms to capitalize on growing demands by socially-responsible consumers or to overshadow their environmentally damaging business practices.
Greenwashing creates a false impression that a company, or its products, are environmentally friendly. While most consumers know to raise an eyebrow at catch-all terms like “green,” and “sustainable,” it’s important to be on the lookout for these trickier terms that can mislead even the most considerate shopper.
Here are 5 misleading greenwashing terms.
This term suggests that a product or material will easily break down in the environment and is often confused with compostable. The reality is that many materials marketed as biodegradable can take decades to decompose, especially if they end up in a landfill where conditions are anaerobic (without oxygen), and therefore not conducive to decomposition.
A key issue with the term biodegradable is that it’s not measurable or held to any standard, so it just means that “at some point in the future this will break down,” even if that is 500 years from now. Another issue with this term is that many products we use today expel harmful chemicals like microplastics as they decompose, which can leach into waterways or the atmosphere.
This term suggests that a product or company has taken steps to offset the greenhouse gas emissions it produces – which is good! However, some companies use this term without actually reducing their emissions, and instead solely rely on purchasing carbon credits from third party projects to reach neutrality.
While carbon neutral or net-negative carbon emissions are legitimate business goals that can be transparently measured and successfully achieved, best business practices are when a company is taking internal steps to achieve carbon neutrality, and is using something like a carbon credit program in addition to those steps, not as the only active program.
While the term recyclable implies that a material can be reused or turned into new products, not all materials that are recyclable are actually recycled. In some cases, the infrastructure for recycling a certain material may not exist, or the cost of recycling it may be too high to make it economically viable.
Plastic is a great example of a product that is technically recyclable, but there is very little infrastructure that exists to properly re-purpose the material. On the other hand – glass, paper, aluminum, and organics (yard and food waste) have much more scalable and widely accessible recycling infrastructure that ensures the products are re-purposed through many life cycles.
This term suggests that a product or material is made from “natural”, non-toxic ingredients. However, it can be misleading, as many natural materials can still have negative environmental impacts if they are not sustainably sourced or properly disposed of. Additionally, some products may use the term "natural" without actually disclosing all of the ingredients or production processes used.
The next time you're considering a “natural” product, ask yourself these questions:
Do I really need this product?
Does the company share where and how the materials or ingredients from this product are sourced?
Where and how is this product manufactured?
How long will I own and use this product, and what will happen to it when I’m done with it?
What options do I have for recycling, reusing, or composting this product when I’m done with it? Note: if it goes to a landfill it will likely take decades to fully decompose.
This is a catch-all term that suggests that a product or company is environmentally conscious and sustainable. However, the term is often used without any specific criteria or standards, and it can be difficult to know what it actually means in practice.
Companies may use this term to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers without actually making meaningful changes to their practices. A good rule of thumb is that a business that is committed to its environmental and social responsibility goals will be specific, transparent, and tell you how they measure the success of their programs.
Great examples of companies that are transparent and specific are:
Dr. Bronner’s: On their principles that guide their Certified Fair Trade Practices are specific and detailed descriptions of how they measure the success of sustainable and equitable sourcing.
Murphy’s Naturals: Uses their impact report to show how they have performed on commitments they’ve made and how they are continuing to refine and improve their operations, team, and impact on the planet.
Don’t take these greenwashing terms at face value. A truly sustainable business will use specific and measurable terminology to back its commitment to sustainability and substantiate its claims.
Companies that are serious about their commitment to the environment will be transparent and open about how their programs work and how success is measured and achieved.