Is ‘greenwashing’ thwarting your eco-efforts?

It’s not easy going green, as greenwashing (aka marketing spin) can make some products appear more eco-friendly than they are. Here’s how to sidestep false claims.

Globally, consumers are becoming more eco-conscious, demanding higher environmental standards.

But there are concerns that some businesses are marketing themselves as more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

Known as greenwashing, here our experts share tips on how to avoid it.

Ignore the pictures

According to Planet Ark head of circular economy programs Ryan Collins, it pays to be wary of brand images.

Ryan says pictures of pristine wilderness can make us think something is environmentally friendly when it may not be, while colours like green can give the idea that a product is earth friendly.

“They’re trying to portray a feeling which doesn’t necessarily translate into the actual environmental credentials of the product or brand,” Ryan says.

Avoid jargon

Fluffy language – including words such as “natural”, “green”, “eco-friendly”, “ethical” or “sustainable” –   is often used without any evidence of a product’s environmental impact can be considered greenwashing.

“(The word) ‘natural’ sounds good, but lots of things are natural, including lots of harmful chemicals,” Ryan says.

These terms are also subjective, so “sustainable” may mean different things to different people, he adds.

Beware of “biodegradable”

Products claiming to be biodegradable should be treated with caution, Ryan says. Biodegradable materials are decomposed by living organisms but can take hundreds of years to break down.

“Without independent verification, there’s no common understanding of how long it takes to break down – it could still persist in the environment, doing damage for a very long time,” he says.

Check compostables

Compostable packaging will only help the planet if you have access to a composting facility, Ryan says.

Compostable products that end up in landfill produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they decompose.

Products that claim compostability should be backed up with certification proving they can break down in a set timeframe under specific conditions.

Get recycling right

An unofficial recycling symbol shows an item can, in theory, be recycled but does not guarantee your council can accept it for recycling, Ryan says.

Sustainability Victoria recommends avoiding pre-packaged products where possible and choosing items wrapped in packaging your council recycles.

Look for the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) on a product to know which parts of the packaging are recyclable.

“It’s the only recycling label that’s evidence-based – it takes into account the materials used in the packaging, the size and weight of packaging, and the inks and dyes used,” Ryan says.

Labels that matter

Certification from reputable third-party certification bodies can offer comfort about a business’s environmental credentials.

“It can be tricky, but looking out for the certification can really help consumers,” Ryan says.

Look out for these labels:

  • Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA)
  • The Blue Fish Tick, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
  • Rainforest Alliance
  • Fairtrade
  • Australian Certified Organic Standard

Buy less

Reduce consumption to improve your environmental footprint, advises Precious Plastic Melbourne co-founder Kayla Mossuto.

Kayla suggests these smart strategies:

  • Buy second-hand or borrow where possible.
  • Repair rather than throw away items.
  • Give away items you’re done with so they can continue their life cycle rather than go to landfill.
  • Find creative ways to use food scraps, then compost what’s left.

“Buying retail is actually a last resort,” Kayla says.

“But when necessary, I opt to purchase items made from sustainable, long-lived materials, products that are ethically made and, ideally, locally made.”

Written by Melissa Iaria.