What is Greenwashing?So you’ve heard of white-washing, yes? In a basic sense, it’s used to refer to the practice of glossing over dishonesty or wrongdoing. Well, greenwashing is a play on this. Greenwashing refers to companies portraying products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly or sustainable when they are in fact not.
You might have been hearing this term a lot lately. And with good reason. As the demand for increased sustainability in products and services has swept to the forefront in the minds of conscious-consumers, we’ve noticed that companies are rushing enmasse to try and cash in on the opportunity.
As they say, the best lies are rooted in truth, and companies that partake in greenwashing know this better than most. While there are certain degrees of greenwashing, the most compelling examples we’ve seen are when the lines between truth and fiction are so blurred that consumers don’t take the time to step back and think about whether the product they’ve picked up actually stacks up to its claims.
We’ve seen more than a few examples of this lately. And so, without pointing any fingers, we’ll cover a few of them in general terms below.
Examples of Greenwashing
'100% Biodegradable' Bamboo Toothbrush
The Kappi founders were doing our weekly bulk food store shop not too long ago when we noticed that the store had come out with their own brand of bamboo toothbrush. Now the display unit they had available looked very similar to our own bamboo toothbrush, so we were especially interested.
After some surreptitious snooping, we noticed that the toothbrush had the label ‘100% biodegradable’ on the box. Amazing, we thought. Finally someone had solved the issue of plastic bristles without resorting to animal hair, or castor bean oil bristles that dissolve after 10 days of use. We were even more amazed because the bristles on the display unit looked just like ours!
Just before we about to put it into our basket under the guise of a ‘business expense’ tester, we noticed a second group of toothbrush boxes, with identical prices and almost identical packaging. So too did the bamboo toothbrushes look identical to the other group, however there were very subtle differences in the packaging. This second group had the term, ‘100% biodegradable handle’ printed on the box. The situation became very clear at that point. The original ‘100% biodegradable’ toothbrush actually had plastic bristles. The bulk food store had clearly noticed their mistake and had taken care to rectify the misleading claims with revised packaging. We suspect that this was a case of misleading manufacturer claims which we’ll address below. Regardless, a single word can make a big difference, right?
Bamboo Fibre Clothing
Hands up all those people that own undies, socks or sheets made from bamboo? Bamboo fibre products are ridiculously soft, durable and are the environmentally friendly choice. Right? Well, yes to the first two, however questions surround the latter. Ever wondered how your garments could be made from the same stuff that is used for scaffolding and wooden flooring, yet be so incredibly soft?
Well we did, so we’ve done some digging. Turns out yarn derived from bamboo fibre is almost indistinguishable from typical Rayon. Once the original bamboo fibre has been chemically processed, it ceases to be a natural fibre. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled in 2010, that fabric products claiming to made from bamboo cannot continue to market themselves in that fashion, as they are actually made from a synthetic fabric made from rayon fibres that were manufactured using cellulose found in bamboo. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) hasn’t quite cottoned onto this yet, so these companies are able to continue to marketing themselves as the eco-friendly option. We bet you would think twice about buying undies with a label that screamed - ‘Made from 100% Synthetic Fibre’.
'Compostable' Dog Poo Bags
As avid dog lovers, and excessively doting fur-parents to a Boston Terrier that we strongly believe is 1/3rd piglet, this is a big one for us. Cleaning up after your dog isn’t an option for a responsible dog-owner. Therefore, before discovering these eco-bags we were resigned to the fact that there was one source of plastic we couldn’t remove from our everyday lives. And so, as we first started down our zero-waste journey, we rejoiced when ‘compostable’ dog poo bags started appearing along beaches and our local dog park. Problem solved, right?
What does the term compostable actually mean when put on a label? In Australia, we have no mandatory standard on biodegradability or degradability. We do have a voluntary Australian standard, (AS) 4736–2006, Biodegradable plastics—Biodegradable plastics suitable for composting and other microbial treatment, that has stringent requirements for the time frame in which a product must break down in a commercial composting environment, its toxicity and the amount of organic material it contains. With no compulsory standards, this means companies are able to label any compostaable product as ‘compostable’ without specifying whether it can be composted at home, or whether it requires the intense sustained heat of a commercial composting facility in order to degrade sufficiently.
Therein lies the problem. While these dog poo bags may actually be compostable under commercial conditions, very few used bags will find their way there. Most dog owners I know look to offload their bags as soon as possible in the closest bin at hand. The alternative is a rather smelly walk in the park with other dog owners taking an exaggerated wide-berth. And, we can almost guarantee you that there is no one at the local waste facility who is painstakingly sifting through the trash looking for your compostable dog poo bags. Nope, they head straight to landfill.
Armed with this knowledge, we have taken a different approach to cleaning up after Winston. We simply take a few tissues with us to the park and use these instead of the available bags. Tissues work completely fine with a smaller dog. Bigger dog owners may struggle, though we’ve heard newspaper works wonders.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Green-washing by nature is sneaky. It relies well intentioned consumers making split second shopping decisions. Greenwashing is most effective for low-cost impulse buy products. The best thing you can do to protect yourself against falling victim to greenwashing is running these eco-claims through your common sense filter. For example, if these bamboo toothbrush bristles look and feel like plastic, they’re probably plastic; regardless of the claims on the side of the pack. Or, what’s the benefit to using compostable plastic dog poo bags when they’re not going to end up in a commercial composting facility anyway.
Responsibility of Businesses
As in the case of the mislabeled bamboo toothbrush example above, communication between manufacturers and retailers/wholesalers is crucial to mitigating the instances of accidental greenwashing occuring. When we were first starting out, the product procurement process was a minefield of misinformation and dubious claims. Manufacturers would tell you anything to get your business. For the first couple of months, this resulted in a lot of wasted time and money spent on sample products that failed to live up the low environmental impact claims of manufacturers. Over time as we grew savier, we learned how to weed out the false claims and less than honest manufacturers until we had a few core companies that we trusted. However, this required intent and significant effort on our part. To ensure longevity and to maintain consumer trust going forward, it is crucial that the ‘eco-product’ industry put the ‘why’ before the dollars in all that they do.
Our Responsibility as Consumers
We’re all consumers at the end of the day, and so we all share the responsibility to step back every now and then and simply ask ‘why?’. Conscious consumers are investing in eco-products because they believe they will assist them in living less environmentally impactful lives. This is awesome. It’s the reason why we’re in business and serves as one of our main personal motivations. All we need as consumers is to channel some of these good intentions into taking a moment to ask the important questions before voting with our wallets.