In a previous post, I wrote about the definition of greenwashing, and tips for avoiding it (Companies that are Greenwashing). This week, I’m giving you the low-down on companies other people have caught, and I’ve caught, who are greenwashing. This doesn’t mean you should never buy from these companies, but it does mean that you should think twice about their marketing and advertising you’re exposed to, and how you choose your ‘green’ products. Here are some companies that are greenwashing:
Examples of companies who use greenwashing language and design to market their products
I used this shampoo for years (and I’m still using up an old bottle of conditioner). It’s really nice! Just be mindful that the name and marketing does not mean that there are any actual botanicals in the products (or the % is negligible), nor are the ingredients and production processes environmentally friendly. Same goes for Palmolive Naturals, Garnier Naturals, the “Yes To” brand, and Dove Pure & Sensitive. The brands are marketing the idea of nature, not actual natural ingredients free from chemical processing.
‘Green’ Household Cleaners
CBC Marketplace can give you some insight on how brands use language and design to make you think a product is a good eco option, when it very much isn’t.
A beautifully designed bottle that makes the water look refreshing and exotic (Fiji) or straight from the glacier (Evian). Reality: A plastic bottle that will end up in landfill or burnt at an illegal plastics recycling facility containing water that may be more contaminated than the tap water monitored in your municipality.
Brands to watch out for that claim to be ‘green’, but might not be environmentally friendly, nor sustainable
Iceland frozen foods
In Christmas 2018, Iceland released that cartoon about palm oil that was banned from TV because it was associated with Greenpeace. The last I read, Iceland still had loads of their own-brand products in store containing palm oil, and were removing their branding from some products that contain palm oil so I’m skeptical about their motives. I call greenwashing on Iceland because I think they’re using a PR campaign about palm oil to sell their brand, while not achieving their goal in the publically-stated timeframe. By focusing only on one issue (palm oil) when their company may have other questionable practices (like plastic packaging), this company is highlighting one small sustainable action when in fact the brand is not sustainable.
To tackle the plastic carrier bag crisis, Morrisons is bringing out paper carrier bags. The problem is the bags are still single use items and paper creation involves a lot of resources, and a significant carbon footprint. Reusable bags are a better solution. Morrisons is therefore using the paper bag as a ‘look at us doing good for the planet’ tactic to encourage people to switch to their shop, but the swap to paper isn’t actually sustainable.
Walkers Crisp packet recycling
Crisp packets account for a huge % of the UK’s landfill waste and litter. Brits got annoyed and started posting the non-recyclable packets back to Walkers, and Royal Mail then got annoyed because the empty packets jammed mail sorting systems. Walkers promises that by 2025 they’re ‘aiming to make all packaging 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable‘. Meanwhile, they’ve teamed up with TerraCycle to recycle the packets. Problem: you need drop the packets off at a participating organisation (they only one in my area is a daycare open Mon-Fri 9-5pm, so that doesn’t work for me). Alternatively, you can collect 400 packets and they will arrange a courier collection free of charge. I don’t know about you, but it would take a very long time (years) to collect 400 packets. Meanwhile, I’d have to store used packets somewhere (yuck). Reality: the onus is still on the consumer not the company to make sustainable changes.
Products by companies like Biofutura are great in theory because they’re made from PLA (cornstarch based) which is biodegradable and compostable. But what some people don’t realise is that these can’t be composted in a normal compost, they need to be broken down at a special facility. Many of us don’t have these facilities in our area. Most of the time bioplastics either end up in landfill, or they’re accidentally added to recycling (where they can mess up the plastics recycling process). It seems like a good idea, but our infrastructures aren’t ready yet.
Reusable tampon applicator
Companies like DAME have come out with reusable tampon applicators. While this is certainly more environmentally friendly than using single-use plastic period products, I can’t help but wonder WHY? Why do you need an applicator? You’re still using single-use tampons with the reusable applicator, most of which come wrapped in plastic, are bleached, and are cotton (resource heavy material). I understand that menstrual cups and pads don’t work for everyone, but I get a nagging feeling that this is one ‘eco’ tool ladies can do without.
Companies caught red-handed for greenwashing
I’d recommend looking at the CBC marketplace video on greenwashing in the clothing industry. They explain the pitfalls of H&M’s recycling scheme and how the company is putting their conscious range and recycling programme in the spotlight, when it only accounts for a small fragment of their business.
I don’t want to pick on H&M and say that they’re the only company doing this. Lots of fast fashion retailers are now doing recycling schemes and brands like Asos, Mango, and Zara champion their eco-conscious ranges, but these comprise a small percentage of the total stock. This is greenwashing.
I got bombarded by this ad on Twitter a while ago all about how BP wanted to help better the planet with biofuels. It’s a load of shit.
Love Beauty and Planet
A new line of body products that are certified vegan (they do have the certification) and claim to have bottles made from 100% recycled materials. While it’s great they’re using recycled materials and encouraging recycling, recycling plastics is very problematic and not sustainable.
If you go to their website, the first thing you notice is that they’re owned by Unilever. They ‘work towards making you and the planet a little more beautiful‘ and say that their collections are ‘infused with organic and sustainable ingredients‘. There is no certified organic symbol on their website. They also claim to ‘help promote fair wage jobs and ethical sourcing for their essential oils‘. How? A vague claim and no fair trade certification. They claim to be ‘carbon conscious & caring‘ and they want to have a tiny carbon footprint, but then say all businesses make carbon footprints. They then vaguely say that they’ll ‘quantify our CO2 emissions along every step of production and tax ourselves for going over our goals‘. What does that even mean??! I wrote them this email (or rather comment through the generic contact form).
I would like to know about your brand and environmental goals. You say that you have ‘certified sustainable sources’. Can you please tell me which certification you hold as I cannot find this information on your website. You say you will reduce your carbon footprint, but I can’t find on your website what your footprint is – when will this annual statement be released and where will you display it? Can you please specify which carbon tax fund you contribute the 40 euros per carbon ton to. I would also like to know which partnerships you have that enable you to support young environmental activists. Overall, your website is full of vague statements and like many environmentally-conscious consumers, I am justifiably skeptical about your claims of being an eco-brand so I do hope that you can respond to my queries.
I received a response from Unilever after several months. Honestly, I give them brownie points for giving me a thorough response. This is a classic case of a corporation making efforts to branch out into trendy sustainable products, but they aren’t as good as it says on the tin. Their responses are in italics:
‘When we talk about “certified sustainable sources” – we are referring to the work our fragrance partner Givaudan does with ingredients suppliers as part of an ethical/sustainable sourcing program and the suppliers from who we procure some of our natural raw ingredients.’
It turns out that the fragrance company they partner with holds these claims. That means maybe 1% of the composition of a product is from sustainable and fairtrade sources. It doesn’t sit well with me that Unilever is marketing these claims as their own on the website, when in actuality it’s their partner company that is doing all the hard work in sustainability.
‘In terms of our carbon footprint, we are still calculating this at a European level (we have only existed in Europe for less than a year) and plan to announce our carbon footprint annually, so when we reach that year mark in a few months we are planning to release this on our website. Regarding the “carbon tax fund” specifically, this is actually something we have created rather than a pre-existing fund we pay into. It is essentially a “savings account” that we contribute to over time, which will be reinvested back into planet-friendly initiatives. We are planning to use this to help encourage recycling of bathroom products’.
If the carbon tax fund doesn’t exist yet, I feel that they shouldn’t use this as a marketing tactic to launch their brand in Europe. It is only intention and no quantifiable action.
In response to partnerships, they did give me some examples of sustainability projects they support. I applaud a company for supporting entrepreneurs and social enterprises, but this to me does not have anything to do with the chemicals (and sustainable fragrance) that Unilever is putting into plastic bottles and branding a green product.
I call greenwashing because Unilever is focusing on small elements and not the whole product. It’s not lying, it’s misleading marketing by making the company and the product appear greener than they actually are. They’re also basing much of their marketing on promises, but not quantifiable actions. Their response to me also highlights that this corporation is taking the credit of other companies and passing it off as their own, which I feel is not ethical.
Happy Naturals Body Products
I saw an ad for a body wash that says it’s 97% natural (means nothing) but that the ingredients are “natural, naturally derived and naturally identical ingredients” – What the hell is a naturally identical ingredient you ask? A synthetic chemical.
As I was on the bus home thinking about this blog post we went past a Wickes (DIY store) with a giant sign for ECoal made with 50% renewable materials. Sure, it may ‘produce 40% less CO2 than traditional coal‘, but I struggle to see how coal is in any way an eco-solution for heating your home.
When I downloaded the info sheet about its composition (and a list of ecological and toxicology warnings) it gave the following information: anthracite coal 25-35%, biomass (olive stone) 20-35%, petroleum coke 15-35%, bituminous coal 0-10%, molasses 15-20%. No ingredient was clearly indicated as being the 50% renewable materials, but I’m guessing it is the olive stone (pits from olives which are sourced from the olive oil industry) and molasses. As far as I can tell, the point of using olive stone is that it is carbon neutral and is an alternative to fossil fuels… not meant to be industrially processed into a brick with coal. Gah. The reviews also seemed to suggest that it didn’t burn as well so you need to use more of the product to generate heat…
Take Home Message
The take home message of this post is to think-twice before purchasing, and question every claim a company makes if your focus is choosing green products. Reach out to companies and challenge their claims. It sends a clear message that consumers are watching and questioning their motives.
What companies have you caught greenwashing?
Update: I’ve written a second post on this subject – Companies that are Greenwashing – Part 2 see also Companies Respond to my Feedback on Sustainability and It’s time to Quit Fast Fashion