Green Junction: Greenwashing by Julie Peller Ph.D.

The term greenwashing refers to communications by companies meant to convince consumers their products or services are environmentally sound when this is not the case. Greenwashing is a deceitful or embellishing marketing gimmick directed at sustainably-minded consumers who want to buy goods and services that are not harmful to the environment. One poll found that 75% of millennials look to purchase from sustainable brands.

A recent report by the Changing Markets Foundation describes claims of eco-friendly plastic packaging as some of the most common examples of greenwashing.  Several global companies, such as Coca-Cola, take part in greenwashing. Coca-Cola is spending millions of dollars promoting a campaign about its bottles created from 25% recycled marine plastic. At the same time, the company continues to be one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters.

Other industries, such as fashion and lawn care, have been participating in greenwashing with green or sustainable advertisements, which have no legal definition in the marketing world. Fleece is made from recycled plastic but sheds enormous amounts of plastic fibers that pollute the environment. The lawn care company TruGreen uses the pesticide glyphosate, which is classified as a probable cancer-causing agent by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. TruGreen’s website states: “We believe everyone has a right to enjoy the benefits of living outside, and it’s our vision to empower more people in more communities with greater access to healthy outdoor spaces.” Pesticides also pose risks to pollinators and other living organisms. Last year, California’s pesticide agency warned against products marketed by EcoMIGHT as organic and natural when evidence showed the presence of potentially hazardous pesticides. 

To avoid greenwashing, consumers need to pay attention to the claims made by companies: beware of fluffy language, dazzling pictures, and claims that sound too good to be true.

People of goodwill must always be willing to demand truth-telling because no one should be treated as if they were not worthy of being told the truth.” Lloyd Steffen, University chaplain at Lehigh University.

Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.  

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