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Greenwashing in the Outdoor Industry (And How to Spot It)

Greenwashing drawing

 
Greenwashing is a term thrown around a lot in many sectors of the environmental movement.

But what is greenwashing exactly?

Greenwashing is a form of marketing. The purpose of greenwashing is to make a company appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. If you work in advertising and marketing, you may have also heard it referred to as the “green sheen.”

Companies may use language, packaging, and other forms of marketing to send a deceptive message to the consumer. In most cases, they are claiming or highlighting only specific parts of their production model or environmental footprint to convince the consumer that their product is better for the planet than it actually is.


What is greenwashing?

Unfortunately, identifying greenwashing isn’t as easy as simply looking at the label. While there are several consumer-facing third-party certifications out there, a lot of popular “eco” or “green” language is not regulated. This makes it easy for companies to integrate sustainable sounding words and phrases into their marketing on labels, websites, and other advertising to convince a customer that something is more environmentally responsible than it is.

And greenwashing can occur in any industry. The outdoor industry has long been thought of as a leader in many environmental and conservation-based conversations, yet greenwashing is still an issue.

As consumers gain more awareness and concern about sustainable products, greenwashing is becoming more problematic. Outdoor brands tend to lead their marketing with sustainability features because it speaks to their audience. Be wary of this image, no matter the company, product, or industry.

Outdoor brands tend to lead their marketing with sustainability features because it speaks to their audience

It can be hard to ignore a sustainability message, and we should be looking at them. Look at overall company transparency instead of just looking at a tagline or short blurb on sustainability. Companies with true production transparency make finding information easy. They’ll explain why they do things, and you’ll be able to find information regarding the materials they use, sourcing, production standards, and more.


Signs of a sustainable outdoor product

One of the best ways to avoid greenwashing is to learn how to identify sustainable outdoor products. While this sounds like it would be time-consuming, once you learn to ask a few specific questions and look for key points, you can eliminate less favourable brands. Then, once you’ve found some top-tier brands and products, you can stick with that company for quite some time.

Signs that a product, company, or business might be telling the truth about its sustainability claims:

  • Read the company mission statement. Does it align with ethical and environmentally friendly viewpoints?
  • Read the company about me page. Did they start their company to help solve a problem beyond making a functional product? If so, is it to provide a more sustainable option for consumers?
  • See if they have a blog or resources page on their website. Are they sharing detailed information about how the product is made, where their materials are coming from, how to repair items, etc.?
  • They offer reports and annual reviews outlining targets and goals for sustainable sourcing, energy use, and environmental impact.
  • Direct and transparent consumer messaging, including responsiveness to consumer questions regarding sustainability.
  • Look for external (third party) certifications that hold them to a regulated higher standard of environmental stewardship.
  • They have a sustainability consultant or advisor to audit environmental and workplace sustainability.
  • They have a repair policy and lifetime guarantee for all gear and equipment.
  • When the media or consumers call them out regarding production practices, they make a noticeable effort to change and improve beyond a public apology.

Source: Outdoor Minimalist: Waste Less Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking by Meg Carney

These are not the only things that can determine a sustainable product. However, across the board, these are ways you can determine how truthful and transparent someone is in their marketing.

A few good examples of outdoor brands who are environmentally transparent include:

If you can’t determine if a brand is greenwashing or not, consider reaching out to them directly. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding in their marketing that they can address. Maybe they can be more transparent in some way to help you and other consumers understand their message. If they don’t respond, move on. Most of the time, if customer service is not willing to address questions regarding their sustainability claims, they don’t want you to know.


Greenwashing

Source: True Goods

How to recognise greenwashing in an outdoor company

On the flip side, you can also refer to something called the seven sins of greenwashing to help identify marketing that uses greenwashing.

The seven sins of greenwashing were developed from a TerraChoice 2009 research project that looked at retail company marketing in the United Kingdom, Australia, and North America. Their project discovered that 98% of the companies they investigated fell short on marketing claims. Most of them were either completely false or, at the very least, misleading in some way.

All of these companies in the study mentioned fell short on at least one of these seven sins of greenwashing, but many of them fell into multiple categories.

The seven sins of greenwashing:

  1. There is no proof of their claims.
  2. Environmental messaging is vague (i.e., all-natural, eco-friendly).
  3. Product messaging is focused solely on one environmental issue.
  4. They are not using legitimate third-party certifications to support their initiatives.
  5. Marketing boasts a “lesser of two evils” type message.
  6. Lack of transparency in sourcing, production, transportation, and general company environmental standards.
  7. Non-responsiveness to consumer inquiries regarding environmental practices.

Companies themselves can use the Federal Trade Commission Guide to Environmental Marketing Claims or “Green Guides” to help them craft a truthful and transparent green story.

Here’s an example of greenwashing:

If you’re still unsure what this all looks like in practice, we will share a subtle example of what greenwashing can look like.

In 2018, you may remember that Starbucks rolled out its strawless lid campaign. As more straw bans and anti-straw campaigns became visible, this seemed like an excellent initiative.

The switch to strawless lids was marketed to the consumer as an environmentally conscious and sound decision, enticing them to utilize these lids instead of straws.

So what’s the problem here?

The issue was that the new Starbucks strawless lids contained more plastic than the plastic straw and the old lid combined. To combat this observation, Starbucks stated that the new lids are made from fully recyclable plastic, whereas the old lids were not. Since only about 9% of all plastic is recycled and the fact that plastic can only be recycled 1-2 times before being thrown away, the seemingly pure strawless lid campaign became a greenwashing campaign.

This is just one example of greenwashing, and it is a very subtle one. Greenwashing is an issue across all industries and will continue to be hard to regulate. As consumers, we can simply do our best to sift through the advertising jargon and hope we find a sustainable product in a straw stack of potentially misleading claims and sometimes blatant lies.


Two of the most valuable things we can do as consumers are to become educated on these topics and hold companies accountable. Ask questions, leave reviews, and encourage them to make positive changes.

To learn more about this important subject, listen to Meg’s podcast on greenwashing in the outdoor industry.

About the author

Meg Carney Author

Meg Carney is an outdoor and environmental writer specializing in outdoor industry topics, trends, and gear. She is the author of the upcoming book Outdoor Minimalist: Waste Less Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking and the host of the Outdoor Minimalist Podcast. Learn more about her work at theoutdoorminimalist.com

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