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5 Nov 2021

COP26: Little green lies? How to spot greenwashing

Lots of manufacturers and retailers make green claims. Here's how to spot some of the ones that might not add up

Day five of the COP26 climate conference focuses on ways the public can engage in climate action and feel empowered to make a real difference.

But to make the right choices for the planet, people need to know what information they can trust, and what's just 'greenwashing'.

So how can you check if product labels, websites and adverts are telling the whole truth about sustainability?

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What exactly is greenwashing?

We are bombarded every day with adverts and marketing messages from thousands of brands and businesses.

Some of those messages try to persuade us that the company is doing more to protect the planet than it really is. Sometimes referred to as 'greenwashing', this can mislead shoppers into thinking products are more sustainable than they actually are.

And it's not just adverts: product labels and online descriptions can also be guilty. Earlier this year an international study reported that 40% of green claims made online could be misleading consumers.

Greenwashing harms the environment because it can divert people from switching to a genuinely more sustainable product. It can also harm your bank balance, as you may pay more for what you believe to be an eco-friendly product, even though it doesn't deliver what it promises.

What are the signs of greenwashing?

It's not easy being green - particularly when lots of brands are trying to claim eco-credentials on the packaging of their products.

Here are seven telltale signs to look out for:

1. Vague terms or slogans

Vaguely green-sounding product names and descriptions can be misleading.

You might see words and phrases like 'eco-friendly', 'green' or 'natural' used to project a sustainable image, but they tell you nothing about a product's true environmental impact.

There are many 'natural' ingredients that are bad for you and the environment. For example, arsenic and crude oil both occur naturally, but you wouldn't want either in your coffee.

The product label or online description should tell you what something is really made of.

2. Images of nature

Appearances can also be deceptive. Trees and flowers, bunnies, and blue skies are often used to portray eco-friendly products.

Logos incorporating the natural world in every possible shade of green aim to convince us that brands take the environment seriously.

But try to look past the seductive images - they don't really mean anything. You'll need to find out what the specifics are to know whether something's genuinely a 'green' choice.

3. Lack of transparency

If you check the label, product description or website for information about environmental impact, and find nothing, then steer clear.

They may not be making overtly green claims, but companies that don't disclose information can have something to hide - dodgy ingredients, shady suppliers, or a poor environmental record.

A business that is genuinely working hard to minimise its impact on the environment will usually be happy to tell you about it.

4. Lack of proof

Green claims are often made without any evidence to back them up. If an ingredient, product, or packaging promises that it's sustainably sourced, such as using paper from managed forests or organically grown cotton, look for proof to back up that claim.

For example, is it part of a reliable certification scheme, or does it have a third-party endorsement to show the claim has been independently verified?

Read our guide to decoding food labels to learn more about sustainability certification schemes you might see on food packaging, and check out this comprehensive list of ecolabels.

5. Mixed waste messages

Green claims should be clear about what they refer to. If the label says compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable, does that mean the product, the packaging, or both?

If it's not clear, check how and where you can dispose of both the product and packaging when you're done with it.

Read more about how to recycle packaging in the UK.

6. Missing the bigger picture

Some claims may be entirely true and verifiable, but they don't tell the whole story. Focusing on a single environmental issue can be misleading.

Plant-based milks might have lower carbon emissions than cow's milk, but they can cause environmental harm in other ways, such as excessive use of water or pesticides. Our guide to plant milks looks at what's best for your health and the environment, weighing up a range of different issues.

Some eco schemes only apply to growing the main ingredient, such as coffee or cocoa. But the way a product has been processed, packaged, and transported may result in a large carbon footprint, or hard-to-recycle waste - such as coffee pods and chocolate wrappers.

Consider if there's an alternative that's more sustainable in overall terms - you might be able to switch to recyclable or compostable coffee pods, for example.

7. Irrelevance and untruths

Not all environmental claims are relevant. 'CFC-free' sounds good, but CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are already banned, so something with this on the packaging doesn't actually offer any additional benefit over any other product.

And not all environmental claims are even true. Some unscrupulous companies simply lie about what's in their products or how they are made, falsely use endorsements and accreditation scheme logos, and make wholly unsubstantiated green claims.

Are these three common claims also greenwashing?

There are some widespread claims that don't look like greenwashing at first sight, but are worth a second look.

Recyclable packaging While it may be theoretically recyclable, a single-use plastic water bottle is not an environmentally sustainable product. Could the water inside it have been packaged better, in a reusable container, or just not packaged at all? Some of the biggest polluters on the planet are guilty of this type of greenwashing, so it's worth thinking outside the box.

If there are particular types of packaging you find you're frequently disposing of, whether in the recycling bin or not, might there be another way of accessing this product without generating quite so much waste?

Head to our guide to buying refillable products for more on cutting your plastic use.

Compostable packaging Some materials are compostable at home, which means you can throw them on the compost heap with your apple cores, and they'll break down within 180 days. But packaging labelled as compostable often needs specific conditions, found only in industrial composting facilities. If your local council doesn't collect compostable waste, you may not be able to dispose of it easily, and it's likely to end up in landfill.

Here are five things to know about biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Carbon neutral Many companies are keen to declare themselves carbon neutral, also known as being 'net zero'. But what does that really mean? In many cases, carbon neutrality is achieved by buying carbon offsets, which claim to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere while allowing the company to continue emitting carbon themselves.

While some carbon offsetting schemes may reduce emissions, a European Commission study found that three quarters of these projects were unlikely to have resulted in additional emissions reductions. So while it may help, be wary of companies that are only offsetting without attempting to reduce their own carbon output.

Three things you can do about greenwashing

Don't forget that as a consumer you have a powerful voice. If you'd like to see less greenwashing, here are some ways to tackle it at home:

  • Ask questions. If you can't find the sustainability data you need, or you think the information given by a brand is incorrect or misleading, ask the manufacturer or retailer about it. Quizzing them on their social media feeds can be effective, since it alerts other consumers to the issues, and brings the answers - or lack of them - into the wider public domain.
  • Report it. Companies may be breaking consumer protection law if they make false environmental claims, use unauthorised eco logos, or mislead shoppers into believing that products are greener than they really are. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Trading Standards services or sector regulators may bring court proceedings, while the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) can also take action for misleading green claims that appear in adverts.
  • Don't buy it. When you spot greenwashing, or a lack of credible sustainability action, look for a different option. Manufacturers, retailers, and brands soon get the message when their products become unpopular. Look for the greenest alternative you can afford.