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Combating greenwashing is the first step towards a green future

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Consumers play an important role in holding companies accountable for their environmental claims. Photo by Brian Yurasits - Unsplash

By: Dr. Abdul Rahman Zahari

Consumers are increasingly drawn to products and services that align with their sustainability values in an age dominated by environmental consciousness. However, as the demand for eco-friendly options rises, so does the prevalence of greenwashing—an insidious practice where companies exaggerate or falsely claim their products to be environmentally friendly. This article seeks to empower consumers by providing an understanding of greenwashing, tips to spot greenwashing, and a simple guide on combating greenwashing and making well-informed choices that contribute to a greener future.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Zahari

Greenwashing is a global issue affecting consumers across the world. The term “greenwashing” is a portmanteau of “green,” which is often associated with environmentalism, and “whitewashing,” which means to cover up or gloss over undesirable facts. Greenwashing manifests in various forms, making it imperative for consumers to be discerning about common company tactics. Red flags include vague and unsubstantiated claims, irrelevant certifications, and a lack of transparency regarding a product’s environmental impact.

Detecting greenwashing practices in the market can present challenges for consumers. However, there are several effective strategies and key indicators that individuals can utilize to discern authenticity from misleading claims. One crucial aspect to watch out for is the use of vague or generic terms such as “eco-friendly,” “green,” or “natural” without clear specifics about what aspects make the product environmentally friendly.

Moreover, scrutinizing claims without substantial evidence or third-party certifications can also reveal potential instances of greenwashing. It’s essential to seek concrete proof supporting a company’s environmental assertions. Lack of transparency can be another red flag; companies truly dedicated to sustainability tend to be open about their practices. If a company withholds detailed information regarding its environmental initiatives, it might indicate questionable motives.

Another valuable method is verifying the credibility of environmental certifications associated with products. Not all certifications hold the same weight, so it’s crucial to look for certifications from reputable and established bodies within the industry.

Furthermore, consumers should exercise caution when encountering comparative claims. Claims suggesting a product or company is “greener” than alternatives without providing specific data or context for comparison should prompt skepticism. Overly positive labels that seem too good to be true should also raise awareness. Considering the entire life cycle of a product rather than just its isolated environmental impact is crucial.

Observing a company’s progress over time can also provide insights. Genuine environmentally conscious companies typically demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement. If a company’s environmental claims stagnate without noticeable progress, it may indicate potential greenwashing.

Consistency in messaging is equally crucial. Conflicting marketing messages that contradict a company’s actual practices could be a warning sign. Aligning actions with stated commitments to sustainability is paramount.

Moreover, be cautious of marketing materials featuring picturesque images of nature or greenery without substantive information about the company’s environmental efforts. Seeking information from independent sources, consumer reviews, or environmental organizations can often provide a more objective and holistic view of a company’s environmental practices.

But how can we start combating greenwashing?

Consumer must fully aware that greenwashing is prevalent across various industries, including fashion and apparel, energy, beauty and cosmetics, food and agriculture, financial services, real estate, tourism and hospitality, packaging and plastics, and automotive. Hence, to combat greenwashing effectively, consumers must cultivate a critical mindset beyond superficial marketing ploys.

The initial step in countering greenwashing is comprehensive research and education about sustainable practices and certifications. Familiarize yourself with reputable eco-friendly labels and certifications, such as SIRIM Eco-Labelling, Star, USDA Organic, or Fair Trade, to ensure that chosen products genuinely adhere to stringent environmental standards. Staying informed about industry practices and environmental issues equips consumers with the knowledge to make well-founded decisions.

Secondly, transparency matters. It stands out as a hallmark of genuinely eco-friendly companies. Seek out businesses that openly share information about their supply chains, manufacturing processes, and environmental initiatives. Trustworthy companies are eager to showcase their sustainability efforts, offering consumers the necessary insights to make informed choices.

Moreover, greenwashing often hinges on the use of vague or misleading language to create a perception of environmental friendliness. Maintain a healthy skepticism toward terms like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” or “green,” lacking specific details supporting these claims. Look for concrete information about a product’s life cycle, sourcing, and disposal to ensure alignment with your sustainability goals.

Fourthly, community engagement is key. Participating in online forums, social media groups, or local environmental organizations proves valuable for sharing information and experiences related to greenwashing. Engaging with like-minded individuals provides a platform for discussing products, companies, and sustainable practices, fostering a more informed and empowered consumer community.

Finally, always demand accountability. Consumers wield the power to demand accountability from companies. Initiate contact with brands through social media or customer service channels, seeking detailed information about their environmental practices. Companies genuinely committed to sustainability will demonstrate transparency and responsiveness to consumer inquiries.

Consumers play an important role in holding companies accountable for their environmental claims in pursuing a greener world. By staying informed, scrutinizing marketing tactics, and demanding transparency, consumers can effectively combat greenwashing, contributing to the growth of genuinely sustainable practices. Every informed choice made by consumers is a tangible step toward a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.

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The author is a Senior Lecturer at the UNITEN Business School, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN), and he may be reached at rahman@uniten.edu.my

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