Sustainable or Greenwashing?

Teresa Madaleno:

In recent years, greenwashing has become a big concern in the retail sector. What is greenwashing? It’s a form of marketing or advertising spin that deceives the public by claiming a product is environment-friendly when it may not be.

Late last year, a study conducted by the pulp and paper industry showed 74 percent of Canadians deem sustainability important when making purchases. In other words, green counts. Harvard Business Review has stated that Millennials are increasingly demanding that brands produce sustainably. Reports like these come as no surprise to manufacturers and retailers. This means that today we can find a myriad of products in stores that claim to be “green” or “sustainable” but are they really?

A report on seafood labelling in Canada suggests that close to 60 percent of seafood products that claim to be eco-friendly have no information to indicate if this is true or not. Environmentalists with SeaChoice, a science-based seafood watchdog were recently featured on CBC news. They said that when there is no evidence behind a green claim, they have to assume its greenwashing.

It goes beyond food though. For instance, the fashion industry is riddled with marketing claims aimed at attracting the eco-conscious. Last year, the Norwegian Consumer Authority, which is the equivalent to the Canadian Office of Consumer Affairs, called out a major fashion retailer for misleading buyers. They said that H&M did not provide “adequate detail” about why its products are less harmful to the environment than other garments. As the NCA pointed out, the clothing giant called the sustainable products the “Conscious Collection”, but in their annual report lumped sustainable and not-so-sustainable fabrics together, thus making it rather confusing. While the Consumer Authority was not calling H&M liars, they were questioning whether or not the retailer was ambiguous.

It is not fair to single out one fashion retailer, many in the industry are vague and that could be intentional or not intentional. Sustainability is never straightforward. For instance, cotton fabric eventually decomposes so most in the industry consider it to be sustainable; however, it is a resource-driven crop so is it truly sustainable? Industry analysts have suggested that product makers and sellers focus on small, specific targets like promising to eliminate single-use plastics from stores, recycling all waste, or sending waste to a facility that upcycles. These environmental goals tend to be easier to explain and track.

As businesses try to figure out how to navigate in a world that demands sustainability, consumers are left wondering what they can do to ensure they are getting truly green products. The Ecolabel Index can be a good reference. It outlines existing labels to help consumers identify what is sustainable or eco-friendly. Additionally, consumers should not assume that words such as, “conscious”, “natural”, or “green” on a product automatically means it is truly sustainable.