Ethical Shopping

'You're being ripped off!': Behind the insidious rise of greenwashing – and how to fight back

Green claims are often just a marketing tool, here's how to spot the tell-tale signs

Greenwashing image fro B Corp piece

Image: 2023 Elenyska/Shutterstock

Going green has become non-negotiable for many consumers in recent years, with over half of us trying to make sustainable choices where we can according to Nielsen IQ. This has led to a series of brands announcing ethical changes, with companies from Tesco to TK Maxx implementing plans to reach net zero. But as almost every firm is promoting sustainable credentials, how can you identify businesses really prioritising planet over profit, rather than just creating a green-tinted smokescreen? 

Corporations that can’t back up their promises are often accused of greenwashing – the practice of making false or misleading claims about how sustainable a product or service really is. It’s become commonplace as shopping habits change but is also being exposed more readily. High-profile investigations into misleading claims have been launched by the Competition and Markets Authority at companies including Asos, Asda and Unilever, the firm behind brands including Persil, Magnum
and Hellmann’s. 

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“These companies are misleading consumers” says Nusa Urbancic, CEO of the Changing Markets Foundation. “Often they are charging you a premium price for their so-called green products.” 

In reality green claims are often just a marketing tool. “A lot of people think that if you pay a little bit more for a greener product, you’re actually contributing to saving the planet,” says Urbancic. This isn’t true. If you buy from businesses with vague environmental claims “you are being ripped off”. 

Fortunately, there are straightforward ways of verifying whether environmental claims stack up. “Look at a company and see what its actual plans are,” says Matthew Cotton, Professor of Environmental Justice and Public Policy at Teesside University. 

“All major oil companies have signed up to meet net zero by 2050. But if they don’t have a plan for what they’re going to do to meet that target it just becomes a vague goal for the future. That’s a clear sign of greenwashing.” 

Urbancic agrees. “Brands will say something like sustainable, responsible, green or eco-friendly without really explaining.” Other buzzwords often used without evidence include carbon neutral, reusable and recyclable.  

Even when changes are made to products, they are often small and don’t come close to offsetting the emissions of the finished item. Urbancic says removing air from packaging to reduce plastic use is a common tactic. She explains that “Often the packaging is non-recyclable and contains products that are not very sustainable. 

“Amazon had beef jerky under their climate pledge, because they removed some air from their packaging,” despite beef being one of the most carbon-intensive foods available. 

If you’re a novice at all this, sites like Greenwash provide a quick guide to the big brands’ records, detailing which firms are truly sustainable by documenting hundreds of cases of greenwashing.  

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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