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Greenwashing. Fake News. Same difference. They both turn me red. Let’s dive in:
The sustainability movement has been picking up steam over the past decade and more. However, one of the challenges that’s come along with it is greenwashing. Simply put, greenwashing means putting the message behind a company’s green efforts ahead of the green effort itself. Want an example? How about Coke-a-Cola talking about how much it’s recycling plastic on one hand and on the other, they say that “their customers want plastic bottles” so they’ll keep producing them in record numbers. Which message do you think they spend more time and energy promoting?

In Coke’s case, it’s useful to stare back at history. I’m reminded of that quote attributed to Henry Ford who famously probably didn’t say, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Now I’m not here to debate the accuracy of the quote but the intent is relevant. True market leadership sometimes means making bold choices. The truth is, customers don’t want plastic. They want their Coke in a package that doesn’t explode. Coke-a-Cola can do better. The truth is, so can most companies.

Greenwashing is toxic

Greenwashing does more harm than good. I describe greenwashing as trying to cure cancer with a pencil crayon. The pencil crayon paints a nice picture but it probably contains lead. As we know now, lead causes cancer and doesn’t cure it. The pencil crayon will won’t help and it’s the wrong tool for the job. It’s a ridiculous but clear example of the harm greenwashing can do.

When companies greenwash it becomes more difficult to determine what is sustainability and what is marketing about sustainability. It crowds the market like ads for prescription drugs that create more problems with side effects than they solve. It’s hard to tell what to believe.

Greenwashing is everywhere

Greenwashing is everywhere and it’s hard to shake. But as a consumer, there are a few ways you can look past the trendy, Instagram-ready sustainability messages.

1. Stand for Sustainability

Stand for something and stand up for the products and services you purchase. As a consumer, you have incredible power to vote with your dollar. In today’s sustainably-rich marketing environment it’s easy to get lulled into the false sense of doing good with your purchase. However, like every meme and news article on social media, it’s important to think about the source of the message. Manufacturers have hooked onto the fact that sustainability messaging is on trend right now. Remember when the Atkins diet was on trend? Look past the photoshoots and bold headlines.

2. Do Your Research

It’s so easy to buy that new shirt online. It’s handsome or cute or whatever floats your boat and the price is great – free shipping too! Take notice though – most retailers, even the sustainably-focused ones DO NOT include the country of manufacturer on their product pages. Why do you think that is? Take a moment and make a customer service inquiry before adding to cart. Ask the questions and demand the PROOF of that answer. Ask for a close up photo of the label.

Where is it made is as important as how it’s made

In addition to my leadership development and coaching practice, I’m Vice President of a sustainably-focused clothing retailer. Twice per year I attend a buying show where 4,000 clothing manufactures use polished music videos and runway shots to sell us on selling their product. Of those, there are a few hundred that really push sustainability as part of their business message. They all use the right buzzwords and hype, but few pass the test. For example, last season in visiting a prominent “sustainable” brand, I asked a simple question; “Where are your products made?”

This is important. We buy goods that are fair-wage and responsibly constructed in addition to being made from organic and natural fibres (cotton, wool, linen, etc.). Most of the time this means paying significantly more for products made in Vancouver (just 375 kilometres from the store) or Los Angeles. Sustainability isn’t just what your products are made from, but how the people and environment were treated in making them.

The answer the rep knew I was looking for was “Made in the USA”, so that’s the answer she gave me.

“About 90 per cent of our products are made in the United States with the other 10 per cent from other countries.” – fantastic!

‘Great’, I thought. Their product was cool, looked high quality and was made as locally as feasible. So I started looking at labels. China. India. Bangladesh. Vietnam…. After looking at 30-plus pieces I couldn’t find a single one made in the United States. I left. Not only had their sustainability message been stained, but I’d been lied to. Guess what? You are being lied to also.

3. Educate Yourself

A lot of sustainability messages don’t actually say anything. For example the term “biodegradable” is a bit of a Trojan horse to cover up real plastic. In 2017 Walmart paid $1m to settle a lawsuit in California based false claims around “biodegradable plastic”. In 2018 it was Amazon with a $1.5m settlement for a similar practice

Biodegradable makes us feel good about continuing our purchasing habits. But it doesn’t actually help. Ideally we as consumers will shift toward what’s called a Circular Economy where products are created from the waste of other products indefinitely. Until we’re there, it’s important to learn more about what terms are used in sustainability and what their true impact on people and the planet are.

One term that’s got me hot under the collar these days is “vegan leather”. Not only is it capitalizing on the vegan food trend, but it’s one of the best examples I’ve heard of greenwashing a product. Guess what? Vegan leather is a way to make an existing product sound more expensive. That product is plastic. Yup. Vegan leather is fake leather that’s usually made from plastic. Avoid it and companies that market that product as a sustainable option.

4. Look for and Reward Transparency

This brings me to the final point: Look for transparency. While a healthy dose of skepticism is helpful, some companies are doing a great job. In my store, you can ask anyone where a product is made and what it’s made from and they will know. Further, they also know that – because of our strict buying requirements – every product is as sustainable as we say it is and that standard is high.

Support companies where sustainability is baked into their mission. Read their sustainability reports, applaud their efforts and keep your expectations high of these companies. They are leading the way to a brighter future.

What can you do to help become a more sustainable consumer and what are some of the steps your organization can make to improve its efforts to lessen its impact on the planet? Give the article a share!