25 February 2021
6 Min Read
The Ethical Consumer Movement
Before we dive into talking about greenwashing, let’s look at where the term actually came from!
A good place to start is decades back in the 1980s when the ethical consumer movement was gaining momentum.
People were growing tired of mass consumerism and the damage that was causing to the planet. They wanted a greener, more conscious way to shop in order to minimise their impact on the environment.
A wave of more conscious consumers. Sounds good, right?!
Well, the corporations who were getting rich off of mass consumerism didn’t think so.
They saw the rising trend of conscious consumerism as a threat to their ability to profit off of mass consumption. Was their market share due to be diluted as consumers switched to greener options?
To negate this threat, these corporations needed to act fast to protect their profits. They needed to show they cared about the environment, even though they didn’t.
So, what is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used by corporations to make it look like they have sustainability credentials and are taking genuine steps to minimise their impact on the planet when in reality, they’re just trying to maximise profits through tapping into the ever-growing conscious consumer market.
You’ve heard the phrase “vote with your dollar”. Well, greenwashing is a way of corporations tricking you to vote for practices you don't believe in.
Oftentimes, corporations who engage in greenwashing will spend millions of dollars in advertising so they can paint a picture of themselves as a corporation who cares, while at the same time spending a minimal amount of money on – you know - actually engaging in more environmentally friendly practices.
The term “greenwashing” was coined by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld when he noticed such a practice in a hotel he visited. Like most hotels, they left a note advising their guests to avoid washing towels unless necessary so that they could conserve water and protect the planet. Westerveld saw this simply as a way of the hotel chain saving money rather than genuinely protecting the environment.
Since then, greenwashing has become so complex that it’s hard to know when you’re supporting a business that actually cares or a corporation who has a clever marketing department.
How to Spot Greenwashing
We live in a world of information overload! How can you know who to trust?
Many consumers really do want to make conscious shopping decisions, but they are misled by clever greenwashing. As demand for environmentally responsible corporations increases, so does the complexity at which greenwashing operates.
If these corporations spent less energy on tricking people and more energy on actually being greener, wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Anyway, here are a couple of ways you may be tricked by greenwashing:
- Many beauty brands market themselves as cruelty-free, however the bulk of these brands export their products to China where cosmetics must be tested on animals before they enter the market. Many corporations like P&G, Johnson & Johnson, and Unilever have created brands that sound like they care about the planet and animals, when in reality, they are just jumping on the trend of conscious consumerism to make more money.
- There is huge interest in moving away from plastics (the soap bar is enjoying a major and well-deserved revival) so the corporate greenwashing brands are also keen to combat this trend. The way they do this is through stating that their plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, water bottles etc are “100% recyclable”.
Does this give cause for rejoicing? Absolutely not.
Only a tiny percentage of items placed in your recycling bin actually get recycled. A documentary on recycling in Ireland uncovered that people were chucking in used nappies into their recycling bin, which contaminated everything else it touched.
That's quite appalling! But when you think of how many people don't know how to recycle properly – along with the different and sometimes confusing rules around local recycling - it's no wonder that once your recycling arrives at the recycling plant, most of it ends up being sent to landfill.
- Then there is the fast fashion industry which is linked to huge water waste, microplastics going into the sea after every clothes wash, disposable fashion filling up landfills, and poor treatment and pay of garment workers.
Many fast fashion brands are now releasing “conscious collections” where a small proportion of their clothes are made using supposedly environmentally-friendly materials (H&M – I’m looking at you!)
Is this a form of dark humour?! If they truly cared about the environment, wouldn’t each and every piece of clothing they produce be “conscious”?!
So, now that you know how greenwashing can arise in every aspect of your shopping, it’s time to weaponise yourself against being conned by greenwashing.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
So, with all the information out there, how do we protect ourselves (and the planet) from greenwashing?
First up, never trust what a brand states on their website, social media, emails, etc.
Second, don’t be influenced by influencers! I’ve happened across a number of eco-influencers who are promoting many undesirable brands who are some of the biggest plastic polluters in the world and also test on animals.
Your own independent research is crucial. A quick Google search can do wonders for your conscious consumerism efforts! For example, simply Googling “Is XYZ cruelty-free" or “is H&M sustainable?” will rapidly allow you to detect whether a brand is truly cruelty-free, ethical, and sustainable. This approach can be taken with any brand you’re thinking of welcoming into your household.
Finally, finding out who really owns brands is important too. Think a brand is eco-friendly because it’s called “Love, Beauty and Planet” and has cute leaves printed on the plastic bottle? Nope. That’s owned by Unilever – one of the largest and most unethical corporations in the world when it comes to environmental pollution and mass animal testing. Unilever owns over 400 well-known brands and you can bet some of your favourite ones are on that list.
If there is anything we’ve learned in the past year, it’s the importance of supporting small, independent brands who truly care about their impact on the planet. So, it goes without saying that supporting independent brands is the best way to truly be a conscious consumer.
The Future of Conscious Consumerism
So, what’s the future of the conscious consumerism movement?
The demand for more sustainable and cruelty-free products is definitely there. A study by Nielson shows that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.
The future of conscious consumerism (and the future of the planet!) will depend on whether or not we successfully learn how to sidestep greenwashing through making both conscious and informed purchasing decisions.
I think we can do it!
Jen runs Sustainable Social, a social media management business especially for cruelty-free brands. When she's not writing, she's watching true crime docs, indulging in her freshly popped popcorn addiction, and convincing her boyfriend to adopt multiple rescue animals.