On first viewing, you’d be forgiven for believing that manufacturers and product design teams all over the globe are putting the world to rights. Buzzwords like ‘sustainably sourced’, ‘biodegradable materials’, and ‘compostable’ are ubiquitous and are often used to highlight sustainable practice and design.

But when it seems too good to be true, it normally is and sustainable product design is no different. The real-life application of many so-called environmentally friendly solutions is, unfortunately, misleading. And, even worse, it can even be a deliberate attempt to deceive consumers and hide the truth.

Confused? That’s the whole point of greenwashing. Keep on reading to find out exactly what greenwashing is and why you may need to read between the lines in future.

What is Greenwashing?

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the link between the words ‘greenwashing’ and ‘brainwashing’. While it isn’t always malicious or intentional, greenwashing creates a false picture of sustainability and eco-friendly design that often diverts attention away from environmentally damaging products and procedures.

Marketing teams will use greenwashing to mislead consumers about how their business (and business procedures) affect the environment. Huge international brands like BP, Volkswagen, and even McDonald’s have all been accused of greenwashing consumers.

One example is McDonald’s switching from plastic straws to paper straws. On paper (no pun intended), this is a positive change, attempting to minimise the use of single-use plastic and instead use paper, which can be recycled more efficiently.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to recycle these McDonald’s straws in the UK. And even worse, the straws were still used in beverages that came in a plastic-lined cup.

McDonald’s heralds a ‘green, sustainable switch’ when, in fact, the materials they’re using still have a damaging impact on our planet. This can be incredibly misleading for consumers.

The fast-food giants may or may not have known this before they implemented change. Some companies will implement ‘sustainable solutions’ with good intentions but, without doing their research, discover that the solutions are equally damaging to our environment. Other brands, unfortunately, are well aware of the negative effects of their product but will greenwash to divert consumer attention elsewhere as part of a marketing ploy.

Why is Greenwashing Such an Issue?

It may not seem like a significant problem, but greenwashing can have disastrous consequences.

The first key issue is that it helps companies shirk away from any environmentally friendly practice: as long as they can convince the world that they’re operating sustainably, they don’t need to implement often costly and disruptive eco-friendly change. The more damaging a company’s impact is on our environment, the more important it is that they commit to operating more sustainably.

Secondly, greenwashing creates a false narrative that can unintentionally do more harm than good. It goes hand-in-hand with the spread of false information. Paper straws are one such example – if other brands join in, then it becomes more difficult to identify it as an unsustainable practice.

Finally, greenwashing has a massive effect on consumerism. It steals media attention from smaller teams that are practicing sustainably, and whose solutions are making the world a greener place. Like Chopvalue, who have created a modular shelf made entirely from recycled chopsticks. We know, chopsticks, right?!

Consumers are misled and will continue to shop with brands that, little to their knowledge, aren’t putting eco-friendly solutions in place. In particular, when those sustainable ‘buzzwords’ are thrown around without weight, it’s more difficult for shoppers to know what they can trust.

How to Spot Greenwashing

So, it’s all doom and gloom! Or is it? Thankfully, there are a few different ways that you can spot greenwashing and make more informed decisions with each purchase.

Look for detail. Do your research! Even quickly, check what the brand means by ‘sustainably sourced’, or ‘ethical products.’ If the information is high-level and vague, it’s worth investigating.

No proof. Does the company publicise its product design process? What about manufacturing? What evidence do they provide that their products are more sustainable than their competitors? Look for proof and clarify legitimacy before completing your purchase.

What’s in the fine print. Does the company list how the materials are made or what they are made from? Where is it being manufactured and shipped from? Just a few valid questions that should be answered by a company if they a making a product more environmentally friendly.

These are just three of the many things you can do today to spot greenwashing and make better decisions.

What Can We Do to Help Combat Greenwashing?

Product design is one of the many industries that need to commit to sustainable practice and manufacture products in a responsible way.

As designers, we can all help to reduce greenwashing by carrying out due diligence and researching sustainable practices before implementing them. That way, the design is more sustainable, the manufacturing is less damaging, and the full life cycle is more eco-friendly.

Consumers should be informed about their shopping choices. Look for signs of greenwashing and follow-up any concerns with the brands themselves. This starves them of the much-needed media attention, and instead diverts it to other businesses that have effective eco-friendly designs in place.

Greenwashing can be damaging and deceiving: it’s important that we highlight and praise the many brilliant examples of truly sustainable product design instead.