Women in the Environment: The Sins of Greenwashing


Photo c/o The Sins of Greenwashing

Guest post by Madeline Boyd, WMEAC Women in Environment Intern

The recent spike in interest in environmental awareness issues, such as climate change, resulted in increased demand for “green” products and services. Unfortunately, the demand brought along an equal amount of unethical marketing ploys by companies wanting to cash in on the green living trend.

Greenwashing is defined as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. There are numerous harmful effects greenwashing inflicts on the consumer and the environmental movement as a whole. Most obviously, this practice misleads consumers who are trying to be environmentally proactive, leading to cynicism and doubt of the validity of environmental claims. Greenwashing is also problematic because it takes the focus away from companies and products that really are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Along with the loss in credibility, the prevalence of this practice results in a loss of power in the environmental movement to market sustainability.

The incidence of greenwashing is important to anyone invested in the promotion and continuation of sustainable communities, but it is also particularly important to women. Women are notorious consumers. Although this apparent fact may be rooted in gendered stereotypes, 85 percent of all brand purchases are made by women. These brand purchases include makeup and household cleaning products, which are two of the most greenwashed products on the market. With nearly 50 percent of women wanting greener choices and 95 percent of green products committing the greenwashing sin, there needs to be a greater push to educate women consumers on how to avoid this marketing ploy.

A 2009 TerraChoice and EcoLogo study outlines the Seven Sins of Greenwashing – seven practices used by companies to mislead consumers into believing their products are environmentally friendly. These sins include:

  1. The Sin of Hidden Tradeoff: A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
  2. The Sin of No Proof: An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
  3. The Sin of Vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
  4. The Sin of Worshipping False Label: A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.
  5. The Sin of Irrelevance: An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
  6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: A claim that may be true within the product category but risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
  7. The Sin of Fibbing: Environmental claims that are simply false.

At the end of the day, all of us need to be responsible and conscious consumers in order to create sustainable communities. This can be accomplished by the tried and true method of reduce, reuse, recycle, as well as by incorporating critical thinking into our purchases of green products. The seven sins listed above provide the consumer with tools to analyze green products and make an informed decision to promote sustainability.

For more information about greenwashing, its prevalence, and how to avoid it, visit sinsofgreenwashing.org  and their list of useful resources for consumers looking to purchase green products.

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