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Greenwashing: Ensure Your Dollar Counts

If you take a tour of the average grocery store, chances are that you will see illustrations of trees and leaves, maybe vern waterfalls and birds lurking in branding of many food products.  A closer look reveals that they also have words like “natural,” “eco-friendly,” or “fresh” splashed across their label. Though you are not familiar with these brands, something inside you settles– you want to be a responsible consumer and buy products that align with your sustainable and ethical values! So you pick up the can of beans with a green label. Chances are, you have just fallen victim to greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing?

As part of their Climate Conversation series, the WashU Climate Change Program hosted a webinar that unpacked different facets of greenwashing, from multinational corporations to small businesses– check out the recording to learn from the diverse group of panelists about their areas of expertise.

In short, greenwashing preys on consumers’ desire to buy ethically-sourced and sustainable products. To capture the sustainability market, companies will often design their product packaging to suggest sustainability without actually making the effort to implement sustainable practices. By slapping a leaf image on the packaging of a product, greenwashing misleads the consumer by suggesting that they conduct business sustainably, while also generating confusion by calling all labels into question.

Greenwashing extends beyond grocery stores, however, and applies to any organization that tries to project a sustainable image without doing the real work. Sometimes greenwashing looks like companies flaunting their efforts to be environmentally friendly without disclosing they were simply complying with environmental protection regulation.

Why Greenwashing Matters

Taking spending power away from individuals robs them of their most basic form of political action– voting with their dollar– while engendering distrust in sustainable labels as a whole. Though much of the marketing you encounter in the grocery store does not correspond to actual practice, there is a slew of third party certifications and labels that actually guarantee that ethical and sustainable practices were incorporated in the production process and throughout the supply chain.

By generating confusion and distrust around labels, greenwashing prevents buyers from supporting businesses that truly align with their values, hurting those who are actually centering sustainability and ethics.

Greenwashing is taking advantage of a good trend; which is the increaseddemand for sustainably sourced products, and the development of transparency and accountability measures that inform consumers’ choices. Let’s see how you can continue putting your money where your values are, without falling victim to greenwashing.

Equip Yourself to Fight Greenwashing

Though it seems daunting to fight back against giant corporations as an individual, your dollar does count, and your patronage affects more than just the store you buy from. Take coffee for example. By purchasing a bag of coffee beans you are benefiting the grocery store, the roaster, the transport company, the grower and their workers. Don’t underestimate how many people and businesses your money can support!

Do your research

Greenwashing preys on consumers who do not have the time and insider knowledge to know which products align with their values, so spending some time researching the production methods of your most frequent purchases can be a simple and rewarding way to understand what practices you need to look out for. For example, if you purchase eggs every week, you can use the Consumer Reports’ Guide to Food Labels to see which labels protect against beak trimming, cage confinement, and pesticide use. Knowing which labels are bogus, what product labels actually refer to, and which regulatory bodies are doing good work can give you more confidence in the choices you make at the store.

Pick companies over products: As a rule of thumb, basing purchasing patterns on companies rather than products is a good place to start. If you look at a brand’s products and only a minority of them are certifiably ethical or sustainable, chances are they do not center those values in their company. Even if you purchase a sustainably-sourced product from them, your money is still benefiting a company that could harm its workers or the environment. Look out for certified B corporations and other labels that apply to the entire company, not just the individual product.

Don’t forget the packaging

Even if the company is certifiably responsible in their sourcing and production, you should also consider what kind of packaging options they use. For example, many produce items are unnecessarily bagged in plastic or styrofoam– instead of reaching for the nice, clean bundle of parsley in cling-wrap, try finding alternatives that use a compostable bag or could be carried without additional packaging.

Buy Local

Buying local is another way to circumvent excessive packaging and cut down on the pollution produced by transporting goods over long distances. Putting money into the local economy also strengthens the region you live in, benefitting you and your neighbors. Check out WashU’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program or explore the Known and Grown farms to see which local farms offer CSA’s that work for you. 

See the Bigger Picture

Using consumer dollars to help make change is the first step, but holding companies accountable takes a greater investment of time and energy. Though greenwashing is frustrating, the larger issue at hand is that large corporations need to step up and take greater responsibility for the negative impact they have on the environment and surrounding communities.

We also have to question our food and political systems to advocate for change that uplifts both workers and consumers. Seeing how related issues, like access to healthcare and a livable wage, connect to our ability to access sustainable, ethical, and healthy food is critical in taking further action to push back against greenwashing. Parceling out time to call your state and local representatives, attend a climate march, and spreading the word through your networks are important steps to get at the root of the problem.

And finally, remember that we can’t buy ourselves out of sustainability problems. Especially when it comes to non-essential consumer products, it’s important to continue to ask yourself – do I really need this?

Further Reading

This article was written by Natalie Snyder, Communication Associate at the Office of Sustainability.