Greenwashing: What You See Is Not What You Get

May 29, 2018 Brad Peebler

Greenwashing: What You See Is Not What You Get

By Chloe McKenna

The health of our environment is a direct reflection of human health. There is a rising trend to be environmentally conscientious. Human habits with regard to diet, transportation, beauty aids, and waste reduction seem to be shifting as the state of our planet calls for desperate changes. Yet, the individuals making small changes in their daily lives often feel helpless, especially when facing overwhelming issues such as the growing piles of plastic accumulating in our oceans. Plastic pollution has become one of the most widely communicated issues affecting our environment globally. Plastic is a product that lasts for hundreds of years and does not biodegrade, or naturally breakdown in our environment. However, plastic is convenient, relatively inexpensive, and durable; an ideal material for a variety of industries. Rather than breaking free from the harmful material that is invading our planet, corporations are simply altering their products to give the illusion that the small changes provide a positive environmental impact. Marketing tactics prey on the widely-known importance of preserving our environment and advertise to an audience of uninformed consumers who are easily misled—this is called greenwashing. While greenwashing has been used for years, it is currently on the rise as human impact on our environment not only becomes an inevitable topic, but also as companies feel pressure to respond to such ethical concerns in order to keep up their sales, as well as a positive image.

 Greenwashing is a growing phenomenon. Corporations are starting to feel obligated to respond to consumer concerns and demands for a “greener” planet. Greenwashing is when “ads or labels promise a more environmental benefit than they deliver.” (Dahl). This trend dates back to the mid-1980s, but has increased in the recent years, according to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (Mulch). False claims within these advertisements have caused and continue to cause confusion to consumers. Sadly, what is communicated to consumers is often inaccurate. Procter and Gamble boasts “Dawn helps save wildlife,” on their Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid Dish Soap label. The label is adhered to a plastic bottle made from oil, yet they claim, “For over 30 years, rescue workers have relied on Dawn to clean wildlife affected by oil.” Most would not see the irony because the message received, through creative advertising, is that the product provides an environmental benefit. 

Concerns for the future of our planet are growing with new environmental issues arising everyday. Plastic pollution is a global issue continues to resonate with the general public. As awareness increases and panic of some sort sets in, companies are becoming more desperate to gain consumer approval as they are looking for more sustainable products. Through an interview conducted by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, it was determined that in the past 20 years green advertising has nearly tripled since 2006, promoting that their goods and services are helping the environment, regardless of the actual impact (UCLA). As the concerns grow, there are more opportunities for corporations to use greenwashing. 


Recycling promises a second life to consumers. Producing recyclable materials, therefore, leads consumers to believe the manufacturer is taking some environmental responsibility. In actuality, a common misconception is how effective our waste management system is in terms of recycling. Recycling has been thought to be a solution to pollution for years and is known through the popular saying, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” However, research indicates recycling has been proven to be ineffective. A recent National Geographic article indicates that only nine percent of plastic in the United States has ever been recycled out of the 8.3 billion metric tons ever created globally (Parker). Labeling plastic products and packaging as “recyclable” gives false hope for something that will most likely not occur. 

Not only is recycling ineffective, it relies on the consumer to be educated about confusing labeling as well as taking physical action to recycle. There are seven categories, or types, of plastics: PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, EPS, and OTHERS. Each category is assigned a number, one through seven, and is typically labeled as such. The symbol for each type of plastic is three arrows pointing in a continuous triangular pattern with the number of the type of plastic inside the triangle (World). These symbols mimic the classic “recycle” symbol of three green arrows pointing in a continuous triangular pattern without a number inside. Since not all seven types of plastics can necessarily be recycled at every recycling center, this confusing labeling is a form of greenwashing in that it tricks the consumer at first glance into thinking they are are purchasing a recyclable material. Another challenge is that recycling centers and proper waste management infrastructure is not equally available worldwide. Many low income areas of the world have weak or no waste management systems at all, which is both an environmental and human health concern. Arun Kansal of GGS Indraprastha University’s School of Environmental Management explains that in India, waste management has always been a small priority and they face challenges like uncontrolled dumping, overflowing landfills, and outdated technology to manage their waste (Kansal). Companies cannot rely on consumers to recycle without access to reasonable disposal services. Labeling something as “recyclable” is ultimately greenwashing the end user with its’ false implications that the product will be able to be made into a new product, having a positive impact. 

Confusing “Eco-Friendly” Vocabulary

In an effort to redesign plastics, “compostable” and “biodegradable” packaging is becoming more popular. Consumers are catching on to this trend, easily swayed into thinking a product is eco-friendly simply because it has these labels. However, there are issues surrounding both compostable and biodegradable plastics. 

Compostable plastics are hard to manage because many are only able to be composted in industrial facilities, not backyard compost bins. The EPA recommends that unless the label says otherwise, do not try to compost “compostable” plastics at home. Facilities have more technology, allowing for better conditions in which the products can break down, as opposed to a composting bin one may have at their home. Limited access to composting facilities poses a major challenge as well. Many communities are not equipped with a facility or the amenities to accept compostable plastics (“Frequently”). Complex handling and the requirement of such high standards presents too many barriers for effective composting to take place both at an individual and community level.

Bioplastics are gaining a great deal of attention because they are thought to be fully plant derived. The word “bioplastic” is appealing to those looking for an environmentally friendly alternative to everyday plastic items. In reality, “bioplastics” are not an indicator of how well it will break down in the environment or if it is recyclable. Bioplastics are a combination of plastic sourced from plants, feedstock, and fossil fuels. Using plants provides corporations with an opportunity to advertise the product as “green.” In the recently released B.A.N. List 2.0, various reputable scientists and activists pointed out that some companies go to the extent of using an image of leaves and the color green on their products as an active form of greenwashing. Coca Cola’s “Plant Bottle,” made of 30% plant based materials, is recognizably imprinted with the image of a leaf. Despite many consumer beliefs, the bottle is not biodegradable or compostable, it is only recyclable because it is still 100% derived from polyethylene. There are truly biodegradable plastics made from biopolymers, like polylactic acid (plant derived) or polymer polyhydroxyalkanoate (bacteria derived). These biopolymers are designed to be composted in industrial compost facilities, not compost bins or in the environment. This leads to confusion to the consumer, because they do not understand what happens after they use the product (“Better”). Overall, there is far too much confusion in terms of plastic alternatives for the industry. We cannot expect consumers to understand the ultimate outcome of these alternatives due to the complexity of these redesigned options. The terms “compostable,” “biodegradable,” and “bioplastics,” impress buyers, influencing their purchasing decisions, while being unaware of their inaccurate understanding of how it will break down.

Corporate Responsibility

Increased pressure from activists, scientists, and environmental organizations based on true scientific data has corporations responding with quick comebacks and witty marketing strategies. Rather than taking the difficult, yet most responsible, path to break free from plastic, corporations are overpromising and under delivering. In most cases, profitability takes precedence over sustainability as corporations ultimately answer to their shareholders.

Major corporations, like Starbucks, have committed to making changes due to the plastic pollution issue. Starbucks pledged by 2015 to have a 100% recyclable cup, yet to date, they have failed to produce this “100% recyclable cup.” Despite their claims to shareholders regarding heightened sustainability efforts, Starbucks continues falls short in this area. PR Newswire reports that only 1.4% of drinks are served in reusable cups brought in by customers (“Global”). Some believe that this very low percentage is due to the minimal discount offered by the company. Starbucks continues to provide plastic straws, stirrers, cups, lids, water bottles, and a plethora of items packaged in plastic. Starbucks is only one of the many large corporate culprits impacting our environment at such an alarming rate, setting the tone for under delivering on their promises. According to PR Newswire and Sondhya Gupta from SumOfUs, Starbucks has pledged to open one store in China every 15 hours, even knowing their environmental impact (“Global”). Profitability takes precedence over accountability when it comes to large corporations attempting to respond to environmental issues. 

Corporations have yet to break free from plastic. Engineering packaging and consumer products in a way that will truly degrade naturally is a challenge that these large companies have not begun to take on. Alternatively, they hide behind their careful, creative advertising while greenwashing the population to avoid having to make real change. The alarming rate at which plastic is invading our oceans is an indicator that human behavior has a direct effect on our planet. The responsibility of protecting our environment, the health of our oceans and ourselves, as well as the fate of future generations, unfortunately lies in the hands of profit-driven corporations.

Works Cited