top of page

Greenwashing 2nd act: Everyday sins from the green laundry room.

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

100 Euro bills hanging on clothesline

How important is sustainability to you?

A crazy amount has happened: Sustainability seems to have taken a firm place in everyone's shopping life. There's hardly an advertising offer that doesn't have at least one patch of green paint, an eco-label, or a quality promise like "fair" and "100% recyclable". Or everything at once and more.

What's behind it literally moves to the second row of our perception. Because living sustainably today still means living more expensively. And so, the green phrases, symbols and designs are just what we need: Buy this and do something good.

"Greenwashing also works so well because members of Western consumer societies like to hear that everything can continue as before, indeed that their exuberant lifestyles themselves could be what makes the world a better place."

Kathrin Hartmann, author of the book "The Green Lie“ (Source)

Let's be honest: if you were approached by a TV crew in the middle of the day with the question, "How important is sustainability to you?" - what would you answer?

Shooting in the forest

Of course, sustainability is important to you, and you would never buy a T-shirt that says "55% child labor" and "total transport distance: 11345 km". You don't want to do anything bad, harm someone or even exploit them. So you buy what promises good. But you do not question the good.

In essence, greenwashing is a clever mixture of product and PR communication. Let's take a closer look at greenwashing.

Elaborate greenwashing tactics

Greenwashing is on the radar. For example, the Underwriters Laboratories Environment network (Wikipedia) has defined the seven most common forms of greenwashing (source). We'll provide a few examples, some of which may sound familiar to you:

1. Sin of hidden trade-off

Products are specifically advertised with an environmentally friendly aspect, while other, less or not at all ethically correct aspects are deliberately concealed. For example, if a shampoo is filled in a recycled bottle, the packaging may be sustainable, but the contents might be far from it.

2. Sin of no proof

This sin is a characteristic of complex value chains. Labels such as "ecological" or "sustainable" say nothing about the actual production conditions without certification. Basically, this is transferable to an overwhelming percentage of all industries. The countless logos and labels represented a counter-reaction to this complexity. But they have now become a problem on their own.

But also, the un-word of the year is an excellent example: "climate-neutral". This is something like a semantic booster for all those who want to change from an ego shopper to a purpose shopper. In classical literature, it would probably be described as a rhetorical stylistic device of "hyperbole", i.e., an exaggeration without measure. Because if you take a deeper look at the promised climate neutrality, you will be sorely disappointed: "94 percent of the CO2 certificates examined, which the world's leading provider Verra has issued for forest protection projects, have no positive impact on the climate," writes Ecoreporter according to research by the investigative platform Source Material. In addition, Deutsche Umwelthilfe is currently acting against companies that advertise themselves or their products as climate-neutral and simply do not disclose how they came to that statement.

3. Sin of vagueness

Unclear and misleading statements like "more sustainable cotton" undoubtedly sound good. But the fact is that they are not automatically synonymous with ecologically and fair produced goods. Most companies that can be accused of greenwashing here do not provide more in-depth information. A typical example is wording like "meat from organic farming". We know nothing more than that it is an organic farm, i.e., the feed production must obey certain requirements. The word "organic" does not tell us anything about the animal’s well-being during their lifetime.

Sausages on a wooden board

So "organic cotton" or "organic meat" does not automatically mean that production has taken place under human or animal-friendly conditions. This aspect is then "hushed up". The extent to which this is greenwashing should, however, be carefully weighed up on a case-by-case basis. While some only want to positively emphasize the fact that it is organic and not conventional, others rely on the positive image effect of the word "organic" and want to embellish other, perhaps not so attractive condition.

Another example is Nespresso, which advertises the recycling of its notorious coffee capsules. But the fact is: A lot of waste is still produced. And, of course, the capsules are still made of environmentally harmful aluminum. To what extent they are really recycled is questionable (source). Is this a good way? A half-good way? What Nespresso is factually doing is not so easy to find out. Click on this link and do the self-experiment: how sustainable is Nespresso from your point of view?

Plastic bottle in the water

4. Sin of irrelevance

Who doesn't remember the poison of the 90s, the CFC? In the golden 90s, numerous companies advertised their products with the words: CFC-free! Fun fact: In 1991, the greenhouse gas was banned.

A similar phenomenon of "we throw out what's not in it or not allowed to be in it" is vegan orange juice. Pardon? What else is orange juice supposed to be besides vegan? Well, in the past, the ever-popular breakfast drink was still pressed with the fish bladder. A process that, by the way, is common practice for wine.

5. Sin of lesser of two evils

It is misleading to strongly emphasize individual positive aspects of a product in order to distract from the greater evil. For example, when low CO2 emission values in production are shown, but the manufacturer does not provide any information about other toxic substances. Or jeans labels advertise the use of ecological materials such as organic cotton, but continue to produce in low-wage countries and insist that workers use processing methods that are harmful to health.

„The main argument by palm oil lobbyists is that palm oil is better than other crops because it has a higher yield. This argument of a ‘lesser of two evils’ is used to justify and excuse the ecocide, deforestation and human rights abuses associated with ‘sustainable’ palm oil.“ Palmoildetectives (Quelle)

6. Sin of fibbing

This category covers all false statements that deliberately mislead consumers. Strictly speaking, all the non-protectable terms such as "species-appropriate", "organic" & Co. can be counted in. This sin is also at the expense of companies and producers who honestly strive for species-appropriate rearing of animals or organic rearing of plants.

7. Sin of worshiping false labels

Finding one's way through the jungle of quality labels has become a challenge for consumers. There are reputable certifications and those that are simply made up. Here, the ALDI retail group has repeatedly shown itself to be very creative. Foodwatch recently criticized ALDI for labeling its "FAIR & GUT" milk as "climate-neutral", saying that the discounter was "green-labeling a product that is not climate-friendly per se with questionable CO2 certificates" (source). But that is not at all the sin addressed. Because do we have to push open the big research door first, in order to guess, how much "really" honestly good action stands behind the name "Fair & Good" ...?

At the tipping point of greenwashing

The amount of and the skills behind green rhetoric are distressing.

But you know what? This is also really good!

Because due to its omnipresence greenwashing seems to be at a tipping point and seems to be turning into an alarming red for many of us. We notice it in the fact that

No, honestly, we are very hopeful.

9 views0 comments


bottom of page