What is greenwashing and how software can help prevent it

Agata Bieniek
15 October 2021
6 min read

Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a growing demand for environmentally-friendly products that has exceeded the manufacturing process itself. Increasingly, companies seek to promote their products, services or even themselves as being green and sustainable under the assumption that this attracts decision-conscious customers. Nevertheless, so long as there is an insufficient level of environmental awareness in society, many such customers will often be misled by vague and irrelevant claims which operate under the guise of eco-friendliness.  As a result, consumers are frequently subject to greenwashing. But what is greenwashing, and what does the software have to do with it? Read on to find out.  

What is greenwashing?

Various definitions of greenwashing can be found in literature and on the internet. It is a term first coined in 1986 by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt when criticising the hotel industry's practice of promoting the reuse of towels to "save the environment" whilst putting little or no effort into reducing energy waste. Hoteliers were profiting instead.

Here are some other definitions to illustrate further:

Greenwashing is to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is - Cambridge Dictionary

Greenwashing is the dissemination of false or incomplete information by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image - Journal of Applied Business and Economics

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are environmentally friendly - Investopedia

You will also come across the term ‘green sheen’, which is equally described as an attempt to benefit from the increasing demand for products that do not positively impact the environment.  This will typically include the use of terms such as ‘natural’, ‘healthier’, ‘free of chemicals’, ‘recyclable’ or ‘less wasteful of natural resources’ in a product’s specification. As you can imagine, there is much potential for misrepresentation and abuse here.

The 7 sins of greenwashing

Accordingly, greenwashing is frequently described as a mask under which companies hide their unsustainable policies and practices. So, how to distinguish when something is or is not eco-friendly? For a better understanding of what can be classified as greenwashing,  TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has assessed thousands of products categorizing them into the “seven sins of greenwashing”.

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing are:

#1 Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off

A product described as being green but is instead based on a very narrow set of criteria, disregarding other major environmental issues.

#2 Sin of No Proof

A product described as being green that is not endorsed by factual evidence or third-party certification.

#3 Sin of Vagueness

A product described by unclear, easily misleading terminology. 

#4 Sin of Worshipping False Labels

A product endorsed by non-existent certification.

#5 Sin of Irrelevance

A product supported by claims which are irrelevant to environmental concerns. 

#6 Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

A product less harmful to the environment though still belonging to a category that is considered eco-unfriendly.  

#7 Sin of Fibbing

A product described with false claims. 

Try this quiz to find out if you understand greenwashing practices.

How can you prevent/fight/avoid greenwashing?

Going green is not straightforward and requires engagement in some shape or form. So, start with small steps in the form of conscious decisions and ensure these decisions are informed by knowledge of how to identify truly sustainable products and services. Yet finding reliable information can be in itself a task, and merging data from various sources often a challenge, so here are some software solutions that will prove helpful:

Giki is a product that supports the transformation into a more sustainable life. The app has two divisions, Giki Zero (carbon footprint) and Giki Badges, with the latter enabling one to identify sustainable and healthy products in the supermarket. Giki has 15 different badges including responsibly sourced, better packaging, and animal welfare, and a database covering almost 280 000 products. However, it is currently available on the UK market only.

Ethical Barcode is an app and non-profit project that aims at educating users about the products they buy. Through its application, a user can scan a barcode to find out which organizations the product’s manufacturers support. In this way, the consumer can make conscious decisions when purchasing goods by discerning those which are more in accordance with one’s personal values. 

There is also an app with a similar function that applies to clothing and fashion retail. Good on You is designed to affect the negative impacts of this industry through an advanced rating system for advising consumer decisions. This system assesses 3 factors: the product’s effect on the planet, on people and on animals.

You might also consider Green Choice if you find you are wanting to make environmentally conscious decisions yet have little time for researching how to do so. Green Choice is a climate-positive marketplace through which dietary filters, green score ratings and healthy swaps are established for creating a carbon-free cart. If you are tired of misleading claims and labels, Green Choice is well worth looking at.

Klimato is an app that helps restaurants minimise the negative impact of food procurement and preparation on the environment. By calculating the carbon footprint of a dish’s ingredients, the app can help you make a more conscious decision by considering more sustainable culinary options. 

These are just a few of the software-based solutions to combat greenwashing, and you will find many more industry-focused options to guide you through various manufacturing processes through which fraudulent factors may be identified.

How to exclude greenwashing from your business

Being green can be perceived as an opportunity for a business rather than an unnecessary cost. It can also be a catalyst for development, innovation and a means of accessing new customers and markets. Nevertheless, to avoid greenwashing, businesses should analyse their actions carefully. With increased consumer scepticism towards unsupported, vague or irrelevant environmental marketing claims comes an imperative to transparency and to providing as many legitimate source certifications as possible. 

One clear and effective approach is to begin by citing an environmental ethos in the company’s mission, vision and strategy. This must remain constant in the organisation’s development and resonate greenness throughout its value chain.

With this in mind, here are some tips on how software can help your business become more transparent and how you can demonstrate eco-legitimacy to your customers:

Introduce a carbon footprint calculator, and be sure to include it to insure against committing a Sin of Irrelevance! Chooose.com has everything you need to measure, manage and offset your company’s footprint. Although big companies like Santander, Wizzair or Skyscanner are using Chooose’s solution, it is, of course, suitable for businesses of all sizes!

You might also consider implementing waste management software. A good example is WasteIQ, which collects waste data and provides information on valuable elements that can be reused or recycled. It also allows you to reduce residual waste and increase the sorting rate.

The use of software for meeting environmental compliance requirements is also recommended. Encamp is a management and reporting solution that helps the user understand all regulatory deadlines and facilitates the compliance reports submission process. Being up-to-date with sustainability requirements has never been easier!

With all things considered, nor has it ever been easier as a consumer or business owner to prevent greenwashing. We hope this article has gone some way in illustrating just a few of the many facilities available for ensuring your venture remains genuinely verdant. And should you have your own idea for contributing to a greener planet, we also hope you’ll contact us to discuss at hello@startup.house. Startup Development House can help transform your “green” idea into a product!

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