Are the products and packaging you use really eco-friendly?

It is an unethical marketing ploy intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands. This manifests in various ways: outright deception, subtle advertising and often ambitious claims that are not transparent about the real impact that brands are making towards protecting the environment.

Why companies greenwash

Going green can be a profitable business strategy for brands. Green business practices not only open a new market of environmentally conscious consumers, but also enjoy a favourable public sentiment amongst existing customers.

As the demand for green products increases, more and more companies are creating a perception of their brand that is greener than it really is. This is often done by making broad statements filled with buzzwords about their sustainability that are too vague to mean anything.

How to avoid greenwashing

If a company wants to avoid greenwashing, it should rely on data, embrace credible third-party certification, and resist stretching the truth about the eco-achievements they're making (or intend to make). In the end, it's vital that brands educate their customers about the actual environmental impact of their product portfolio.

Loosely used, sustainability claims can mislead people to choose products that are less sustainable over more sustainable products that have less aggressive marketing and influence.

An example of this is where a company claims that its product is 100% recyclable, but its packaging is made up of several component parts, some of which are not recycled. An example of this could be a plastic bottle that is 100% recyclable, however its label may use an adhesive that makes recycling difficult, and its closure or lid may be composed of materials that aren’t recycled.

To be sure customers are buying products in packaging that is recycled right here in South Africa, they can investigate their packaging preferences more closely. Social media plays an integral role as an additional source of information, which puts more companies under pressure to deliver as they promise. Large retailers have had to answer to being called out online due to their greenwashing allegations.

Types of greenwashing:

  1. Sustainable packaging design

    Designing for the environment is often an afterthought for many companies. The overall goal of sustainable packaging design is to maintain functionality while also keeping the number of materials used to a minimum and designing the product for the circular economy. Packaging should be designed using the least amount of materials possible and in a way that it can be durable enough to last for multiple uses, or able to be fully recycled, or both.

  2. Misleading labels

    Certain products are labelled ‘certified’ or ‘100% organic’ without supportive information to prove it. There is a good chance that these labels are self-created and self-declared.

  3. Hidden trade-offs

    Corporations can put up a front of being environmentally friendly and sustainable, but have a very non-environmental friendly trade-off. Genuinely conscious companies provide more information on energy, water conditions or greenhouse gas emissions.

  4. Irrelevant claims

    Sometimes labels state that a product is free of certain chemicals. The substance might actually be banned by the law and is irrelevant to advertise as going green. In addition, you might have also come across labels that say, ‘not tested on animals’. This becomes irrelevant in some countries where testing on animals is required by law.

  5. Grey areas

    This refers to when the company’s claim is true within the product category, but a greater risk or environmental impact prevails. An example is selling organic chemical fertiliser.

What can companies do to make a difference?

Eco-friendly packaging materials are packaging items that have been designed, produced, transported, and/or disposed of with sustainability in mind. Businesses choosing packaging that is either reduced, can be reused, or be recycled, will go a long way in making a positive impact on the environment.

With an increasing number of customers valuing the “unboxing” experience there’s greater pressure for retailers to provide fit-for-purpose packaging materials that meet customer expectations. Some of the factors that can contribute to customer and eco-friendly packaging include:

  • Using renewable material such as paper is a great starting point, but it is also important to evaluate if the raw material was produced in an environmentally efficient way and thus from a certified sustainable source, as one verified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  • They will also need to consider the carbon released during the shipping of the raw materials, manufacturing of the product and recycling of its packaging.
  • Thinking about recycling and the end of life of packages is a critical step in the design process. The fibres of paper, for example, can be recycled numerous times before they break down and can’t be recycled any more. Do companies consider what happens next: can the energy from the package be recovered, or can it be left to decompose naturally, in everyday conditions?

Does your business produce or use packaging? If you want to know if your paper-based packaging is sustainably designed, visit Fibre Circle’s website or contact them directly.

For information on designing your PET packaging for circularity, visit PETCO’s website or contact them directly.

What can consumers do to make a difference?

Before deciding on a purchase, look for companies that offer products and packaging that are truly compostable under ordinary, everyday conditions, or are reusable, or recyclable. Here are a few ways to make sure of this:

  1. Be label savvy: Check for greenwashing and diversion tactics on labels. These include words such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘animal-friendly’. Look out for hazy terms that might be confusing.
  2. Look deeper into a company’s claims: If you see something on the label, go to the company’s website and search for information about the product.
  3. Shop with intention: Research the products you plan to purchase before going to the shops. This way, you can buy the particular item and avoid falling for greenwash advertising of other products.
  4. Read Review Ratings: Another way to ensure the brand you're purchasing from isn't greenwashing is by researching the company and checking reviews.

If you are still unsure, look for legitimate certifications that verify the company you are considering buying from is not greenwashing and providing misleading information about its product. You can also contact the brand owners directly.

Every packaging producer under the EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) regulations will either have their own scheme or belong to a PRO (a Producer Responsibility Organisation). A PRO is responsible for meeting the recycling targets as set out by the law on behalf of its members; the producers who have signed up with the PRO. Each packaging type has a different EPR fee that will be used to build recycling capacity (read more about EPR in our previous blog post). Mandatory EPR now makes producers accountable. You can hold them to their promises too.

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