Tricky Greenwashing Terminology To Watch For

“Sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “green,” “better for the planet,” “biodegradable”—these are all words I know we have heard companies use. With this new era of consumers wanting to buy more eco-friendly products (people like us), many companies are shifting their focus to sustainability. However, in many cases, this can lead to stretched truths and even blatant lies in advertising.

I know us as consumers want to support more sustainable causes, but those can be hard to distinguish from false advertising. In this post, my goals is to give you some strategies, terminology, and tips that can help you spot greenwashing and decipher what companies are truly trying to be more sustainable.

Philanthropy:

Many companies will advertise their donations to sustainable causes like planting trees or donating to research. While donating to good causes is amazing, a company may use donations as a form of distraction from their adverse effects on the planet. Business Insider has noted some standout companies that do this. 

Now not all companies have ulterior motives to donating, but it is important to be aware that SOME companies may do this.

How can we tell which companies are using this as a distraction? My best piece of advice is to look past the external donations and look inside the company. What changes is the company making to make their product more sustainable? If nothing, the donation may be a form of greenwashing.

Biodegradable:

Many of us tend to equate biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable; however, these terms are not interchangeable. 

Something that is labeled recyclable should not be composted; it should be recycled if, and only if, it can be recycled by your local recycling provider otherwise it should be put into the landfill bin. Check out this list of various local recycling rules:

Something that is labeled biodegradable should also not be composted; it should be put into a landfill bin. The term biodegradable just means that it can be broken down into smaller pieces over an undefined period of time. So if a company uses the term biodegradable, you may want to do further research on the product. You can learn more about the term here from the EPA.

And lastly, something that is labeled compostable is certified to break down at an industrial compost facility, like the one the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan use, so you should put it into a compost collection bin whenever available.

Sustainable and Green:

While these two words can be said with truthful intent, sometimes companies use these words because they are unregulated. Since these words are unregulated, companies can use them to draw the attention of sustainable shoppers. Marketing like this can be difficult to decipher. It can seem daunting to spend the time and energy figuring out which companies actually help the environment. Luckily for us, there are already some websites to help us with that! The National Library of Medicine, which has some good information on greenwashing itself, suggests these two resources: 

Hopefully these will get you started and help make all of this information easier to digest. It can be scary to have misleading marketing, but know that there are websites like these to guide you in your research. Also, there are tons of resources, from information online to the sustainability community around you. My biggest piece of advice for debunking greenwashing is to ask questions.

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