Stop Falling for the Greenwash Trap!

In the 1960s, hotels began asking guests to reuse towels to “save the environment.” In reality, the hotels simply wanted to reduce the cost of laundry. From thereon after, numerous industries have utilized misleading advertising about their environmental impact or goals to attract consumers. This practice, known formally as greenwashing (originally coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986), is a practice by which businesses and other entities attempt to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are through misleading the public about their environmental impact and operations. For the fashion industry–one business sector that has come under particular scrutiny–greenwashing manifests in words like “sustainable,” “green,” or “environmentally-friendly” that are used to describe fashion items or lines (SOURCE). These buzz words have no regulated definition for the industry, enabling a false narrative regarding a company’s efforts to support the environment. Businesses recognize the lure of sustainable products, so as consumerism thrives, greenwashing runs rampant across multiple industries. To help you navigate and avoid greenwashing claims this Earth Month (and every other month), here are a few tips!


Look in the Fine Print

As mentioned, many industries use buzzwords to make products appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Listed below are some common buzzwords and what they actually mean when placed on a product.

  • Natural – Means that something is found in nature, but does not mean that the “natural” product is necessarily good or beneficial to you or the environment in any way. One anecdote to remember this idea is:  “snake venom is natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you!”
  • Organic – Means that a product is grown without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified material, but there is no environmental standard for a product to be considered organic.
  • Eco-Friendly, Green, Sustainable – These labels are not specifically defined or regulated in any way, so their meanings are vague and can mislead customers into thinking that a product or business is more environmentally positive than it actually is.

To help prevent blatant greenwashing, the Federal Trade Commission has established guidelines which include that companies must explain their environmental claims, and these explanations must be near the claim, in plain language, and easily readable. However, these guidelines are not enforceable, so there is no guarantee that every product will abide by them. If you want to check out some of these guidelines, click here! Also, there are some labels that are truly enforced by the government including the “USDA Organic” and “Safer Choice” labels.


Don’t Cling to Green Packaging

The color green (and other natural, warm colors such as beige, brown, and taupe) is often associated with nature and the environment, so many companies utilize it to appear more sustainable. Coca-Cola once ran a “Life” campaign which utilized natural looking packaging for cans of soda. However, there was no real positive environmental effort associated with the Coca-Cola Life products. If you see products packaged with the color green, make sure to do a double take to ensure that it is not just an aesthetic.


Know the Business

A great way to find if something may be greenwashed is to know the company you are purchasing from. Familiarizing yourself with the brands that make your favorite products can help you determine if something you are purchasing has misleading environmental claims. A quick Google search inside of a grocery store or while shopping can help ensure that a product is not misleading you. This Google search may lead you down another greenwash rabbit hole, so buying local whenever possible is another way to truly “know a business.” 


Keep an Eye Out for Serious Labels

There are many efforts to create labels that have serious denotations. The labels are yet to be perfected, but they do provide a tiny bit of information into the efforts from certain businesses. Some of these labels include FSC for paper products, EnergyStar for electric appliances, Oeko-Tex for textiles, and the ethical Fairtrade label!


If you want to learn more about greenwashing, check out this article from 2021 with examples of greenwashing!


Written by ZC Communications Intern Merrick Rash ’27