How to identify greenwashing and why it matters
Wednesday 10th January 2024
As the climate crisis becomes more apparent and legislation continues to move slowly, consumers are looking to businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. Corporations that recognise the growing concern over environmentally damaging practices are now quick to highlight a product’s sustainability credentials; the issue is it’s often not clear to the consumer (nor in many cases, to the corporation) what it is exactly that makes a product ‘sustainable’. And worse, corporations now understand sustainability to be another USP, and use the term liberally to appeal to eco-conscious consumers: and so, we have greenwashing.
According to the United Nations, greenwashing occurs when a company or entity misleads the public to believe that a product is sustainable, or doing more to protect the environment than it is. A notorious example of this was the Volkswagen scandal, where the car manufacturer admitted to cheating emissions tests in the US; they had fitted diesel cars with software that could detect when the vehicle was undergoing an emissions test, and thus alter the performance to lower its emissions level.
In the UK The Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) expanded their efforts in 2023 to combat greenwashing; this included a series of rulings that banned certain advertisements previously run by major energy companies including Shell. These advertisements, which showcased the clean energy initiatives run by these energy companies, were labelled misleading for consumers as they omitted important information that could indicate otherwise. Cases like these highlight the increasing demand for transparency, and that even huge corporations will be held to account over greenwashing claims. This is why transparency is more important than ever when it comes to businesses making claims about efforts to lower their carbon footprints.
Recorra makes a serious effort to be transparent and to provide open data to our customers. Without clarity of data, whether through outdated systems, poor data collection, or misrepresentation, it is nearly impossible to attain an understanding of waste and its far-reaching impact.
There are seven ways in which products can make misleading environmental claims:
- Hidden Trade-off: claiming a product is sustainable based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes, without attention to other important environmental issues.
- No proof: claims can’t be substantiated by easily accessible information or by reliable third-party certification.
- Vagueness: a claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by consumers e.g. the non-toxicity label can cover a wide variety of products from those that are non-toxic to both humans and the environment and those that are all non-toxic for humans.
- False Labels: claims that leave impressions of third-party endorsement where none exist.
- Irrelevance: a truthful claim that nonetheless is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally friendly products e.g products labelled ‘contains no CFCs’ when in fact all products are CFC free because they were made illegal 29 years ago, making such claims true but irrelevant.
- Lesser of Two Evils: a claim which may be true within the product category but risks distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole, e.g. FSC certified products may come from sustainably managed forests, but dodges the issue of mass deforestation
- Lying: making outright false claims.
Our office supplies department has created a labelling system designed to give our customers the most accurate information possible on the products we supply, so they can make a more informed choice. Where possible, we include attributes such as minimum recycled content, recyclability, and whether it is biodegradable. Whilst none of these things alone equate to ‘sustainability’, we try to provide better alternative than your standard office supplies.
Our team is always open to further inquiries about our products should customers wish to make them.
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Furthermore, our reporting portal allows customers to track their waste production. In 2023, the portal benefited from updates providing Recorra customers with more flexibility in analysing their waste data than ever before. Recorra also offers scope 3 carbon reporting for customers who wish to track the carbon emissions produced indirectly by their business. As part of our recent portal updates, we also show how much carbon a customer saves by utilising Recorra’s electric trucks and our e-cargo cargo bike scheme.
Whilst businesses have a responsibility to accurately describe and market their products, the challenge lies in the ambiguity surrounding what truly defines a product as 'sustainable.' Unfortunately, both consumers and corporationsoften lack a clear understanding of the criteria that substantiate these claims. In navigating this landscape, it becomes imperative for consumers and businesses themselves to scrutinise and demand genuine commitment from businesses, fostering transparency and accountability within the marketplace.