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Greenwashing is the idea of making a product or a brand stand in a light that makes them look like they have less of a negative impact on the environment than they actually do. Businesses greenwashing their brand or products has become increasingly common over the past few years and has led to confusion from consumers when looking to buy products that say they are eco-friendly when in fact they are not, or not as much as they say they are.

Most of the time greenwashing is not done intentionally, but stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding from the business on the claims they are making as to how their products impact the environment and the world around us. Consumers are becoming increasingly interested and aware of the eco footprint they have and taking steps to limit any further damage, so brands that produce misleading or false eco messages about their products could cause significant problems when it comes to consumer trust.

The negative impact of Greenwashing

Environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg have expressed their rage when it comes to businesses that greenwash their brands and products. On social media Thunberg said many companies within the fashion industry portray themselves in a way to look like they are positively impacting the environment by using words like “climate neutral”, “ethical” and “sustainable”, when these claims are not actually the true, or minimal effort has been made to tick the boxes instead of a dedicated effort by the brand in question to reduce their carbon footprint.

When a brand becomes high profile in the media for greenwashing, it has a negative impact that can snowball on for years and requires a lot of positive marketing input to try and negate it (as well as the changes the brand actually needs to make to make their claims true). You only have to look at the whole fiasco with McDonalds misleading Canadian beef Quarter Pounder advert that has now had to be pulled because of their claims about sustainability to know that greenwashing can destroy any positive feelings consumers have in an instant. McDonalds poured millions into their I’m Lovin’ It campaign which was actually a follow on from greenwashing claims in the early 2010s; this will have to continue if they are to come back from this latest stain on their reputation as a sustainable brand.

How to avoid greenwashing?

As a consumer it can be hard to trust brands and their eco claims with many businesses greenwashing their products. The main way to identify whether a product is as environmentally friendly as the brand claims it to be is by looking for certifications.

Below is a list of some green certifications that are recognised in the UK:

  • B Corp – This means that a company is legally required to do positive things for the environment and the employees who help to make their goods.
  • Leaping Bunny – The leaping bunny accreditation shows that the product was not subjected to animal testing.
  • Forest Stewardship Council – The Forest Stewardship Council or the FSC means the product is made using sustainable/responsibly managed sources of wood.
  • Fairtrade – The fairtrade certification means the people who have made the product have received a fair wage for working on the goods.
  • Carbon Trust – This means that the product meets a specific standard of carbon emission reduction, meaning the product is aiming to reduce its carbon impact

Unfortunately, there are some companies that will use uncertified labels on their products to make them look more environmentally friendly than they actually are, so before you buy, do some research on the label if you are not sure.

The government’s response to greenwashing

The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) work to help make company practices honest in the UK and want to stop businesses from greenwashing, whether it is intentional or unintentional.

In September last year, the CMA published the Green Claims Code which pushes businesses to check over their eco claims against a set of rules. This includes confirming that their eco claims are truthful, has proof that they are accurate and do not overemphasise the positive impact they have on the environment.

If a company does not follow these criteria, they will be breaking consumer law and could be taken to court as a result. The CMA started their full review of businesses’ misleading environmental claims at the start of 2022 both offline and online.