Greenwashing – What it Means and How to Avoid it

October 14, 2019

Greenwashing – What it Means and How to Avoid it

When is a ‘green’ brand not an eco-friendly brand? When it’s guilty of greenwashing.

Though we all know you can’t trust everything you’re told about what you’re sold, there are many ploys that companies use to imply they’re greener or more sustainable than they really are. Words such as ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ are thrown around with wild abandon in bedlinen brochures and lifestyle boutiques, but they may not mean what you think…

What is Greenwashing?

The term greenwashing – a twist on whitewash – was first coined by environmentalists in the 1980s to describe the way big companies covered their dreadful environmental footprint with dubious claims and distracting advertising. Greenwashing tactics have since trickled their way into the marketing of everything, from food and drinks to products and pastimes.

Greenwashing may range from an innocuous or incorrect use of terms in a press release, to downright deceptive misdirection or misleading language.

So how can you tell if you’re buying a truly green product rather than just buying into a well-spun yarn: the hard sell or ‘green sheen’ of a slick ad campaign?

There are, unfortunately, countless examples of greenwashing, but here are some tips and red flags to look out for:

Greenwashing Examples

Often cited as one of the first and worst examples of greenwashing, Chevron’s People Do campaign promoted its ‘environmental programs’ in a series of million-dollar TV adverts. However, most of them were mandatory obligations, funded by an amount that was miniscule compared to the oil company’s marketing spend. At the same time, Chevron was violating the clean air act, the clean water act, and spilling oil in nature refuges.

Tip 1: don’t believe the hypeBig business and empty gestures are often bedfellows. If a company is making grand claims in one area, check out its track record in others. Efforts to reduce environmental impact should be proportional to the footprint – so just using ‘recyclable’ packaging or renewable energy is not enough if the core product is problematic.

Be wary of brands that launch an ethical initiative or eco-friendly collection when the majority of the company’s output is not – a report published by the WWFin 2016 found that the companies using the most cotton globally were among the worst for delivering on cotton sustainability.

As responsible choices and sustainability become more of a priority for consumers, corporations have been quick to exploit public perception of their ethical goal-setting, and use woolly language or green imagery to lend their brand credibility.

‘Natural’ fibres? Well, technically, cotton plants are natural and therefore ‘organic’, but the majority of conventional cotton crops are GMO, water intensive, and doused with harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilisers that persist in the environment and compromise biodiversity. On top of that, a sheet or pillowcase made from ‘pure’ organic cotton fibres may still have been processed with poisonous chemicals, and sewn and finished in a factory that is unsafe, employs children or exploits its workers.

Tip 2: look for proofMake sure claims are backed up by facts that are publicly shared and easy to find. Transparency is fundamental – so if you’re not sure where something comes from or how it was made, ask. Companies that really care will be delighted to talk you through their supply chain.

Green labels are also a potential minefield, as some have a far lower threshold for compliance than others, and dupe the consumer into believing they’re making a responsible choice without providing any evidence. Homeware companies may tell you their sheets are made with organic cotton, but this could mean as much as 30% of the finished product is man-made – or that it has been processed with countless harmful chemicals, after the cotton has left the farm.

Likewise, bedding brands that call themselves eco-friendly when they bear the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 or Made in Green label aren’t necessarily as wholesome as you might think.

Yes, Oeko-Tex certification does guarantee that the end product has been tested for harmful substances, and is safe for use from the point of purchase. But since it can be applied to the manufacture of any textile – from organic cotton sheets to synthetic sportswear – it doesn’t have to take into account the jaw-dropping amount of water, pesticides, fertilizers, GMO seeds or chemicals used in conventional cotton farming or to create any other raw materials.

GOTS certification logo

Tip 3: check for trusted logosThe only way to know for sure that a company is practising what it preaches is if it has been certified by a globally recognised organisation that you trust, such as The Fairtrade Foundation or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

At Square Flower, we think good design should start with good intentions. And that’s why every single one of our products is GOTS certified organic and made with Fairtrade Cotton. We believe in making things better – for people, for the planet, and for you – and we’re proud of our (properly) organic cotton bedding. We hope you will be, too.