Taking Power Into Your Own Hands: How to Spot Greenwashing in 2023

Guest Post: Talya Stone, Communications Officer at Permutable AI 

As you probably already know, every year, companies spend millions of pounds/dollars advertising their products. In order to stand out from the competition, advertisers use marketing strategies known as green advertising. These ads try to persuade us that buying a product will benefit the environment in some way. It’s something we all desperately want to believe. We want to feel that we have the power to do good and protect the environment with our purchasing decisions. But how do we know whether their claims are real or fake? How can you tell if a company is greenwashing its marketing practices? 

It may seem like a total minefield trying to unravel and determine whether the flurry of green marketing claims is legitimate. When you pick up a bottle of orange juice and it claims to be zero carbon, can you really believe it? Or how about when you buy an item of clothing it claims to be made of recycled bottoms, only to find out it creates even more plastic waste which recently occurred in the fashion industry.

At Permutable, a London-based start-up that is striving to be the world’s conscience through the clever use of AI within the environment and sustainability space, we are working hard to end the potential for greenwashing by companies to help us better protect the environment through the launch of our new greenwashing identification tool

We want to make company claims versus pledges transparent so that ultimately, the consumer won’t have to worry about confusing greenwashing claims and smoke screens so we can focus on what matters – saving the planet. 

We hope that providing clarity and removing ambiguity will help to stamp on misinformation so that we can collectively focus on achieving critical climate change goals without the frustrating incidence and diversion tactics of greenwashing.

As someone who is passionate about insisting on transparency and action, I wanted to share with you some useful information about greenwashing, how it happens, and what you should look out for with these practical tips on how to spot greenwashing 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the process of lying about the environmental impact of a product in order to make it seem more environmentally friendly than it really is. It is a form of fake environmentalism that can lead to more harm than good, and we should all be aware of it so we can avoid it.

Why Is Greenwashing Dangerous? 

The companies that lie about their environmental impact are not improving the health of the environment. Instead, they are putting pressure on the people and companies that are trying to protect it. 

The biggest reason why companies engage in greenwashing is ultimately to appeal to a sustainably minded audience and win market share. Some companies may have faulty marketing strategies or be unaware of the harm that lies in greenwashing. 

Instead of fixing the issues, they may decide to engage in greenwashing to make up for the damage done to their marketing or business practices. Ultimately, greenwashing is dangerous because it can create a false sense of security and compromise efforts to prepare for climate impacts like floods and heatwaves, and create disorder and disruption in our collective pathway towards net zero.

The bottom line is, companies need to stop greenwashing and start caring for the planet in earnest. If we as consumers become more aware of greenwashing and more willing to call it out, companies and brands will be under more pressure to practice what they preach, for the greater good of the environment.

How to Spot Greenwashing in 2023: What you can do

In January 2021, the European Commission teamed up with national consumer agencies to undertake a sweep of corporate websites across the continent. It found 42 percent of all green claims in European companies’ marketing materials were exaggerated, false, or deceptive. Perhaps the figure is higher now. Either way, if you are feeling skeptical about a company’s intentions or claims then there’s no shame in that. 

That said, I am firm in the belief that knowledge is power. This is where you come in! If companies begin to realise that we are not falling for greenwashing then guess what? They will think twice about doing it. We have the power to make positive changes with the environment being the end beneficiary.

The best way to spot greenwashing is by looking at the brand reputation of a company and doing some quick internet research to see if they have already received bad press attention for greenwashing in the past. If the brand reputation is bad and consumers aren’t responding positively to the product, it’s a good sign that the company is lying about its environmental impact. A good place to start is by checking out companies that have recently been called out for greenwashing here and here. This is also a good time to turn the spotlight on what brands are not greenwashing and who are purpose-led in their environmental claims and actions here

Next, review the environmental impact claims made by the company. If the claims do not seem to be backed up by information in terms of both qualitative and quantitative data, completed projects and actions, and the like, then it is more than likely that the company might be greenwashing. This way, we can all take on a little bit of responsibility for environmental stewardship. 

Finally, you can also sign up to take part in the BETA testing of our greenwashing identification tool here.

About Permutable’s Greenwashing Identification Tool

To create our greenwashing identification tool, we used cutting-edge machine-learning techniques enabling a highly trained and rigorously tested AI to review each and every company’s history of carbon pledges. This is then examined in detail to determine whether there is evidence that these pledges are supported by sufficient actioned projects or initiatives. It also looks for excessive use of greenwashing language in corporate literature – for example, in company and brand websites or literature as well as on marketing and publicity messaging and activity.

The data is then presented as follows:

Greenwashing identification

  • Summary statistics of emission pledges and project announcements. Examples include the number of net-zero announcements, future project announcements, past project announcements, the total number of project announcements
  • Monthly aggregates of announcements for emission pledges and projects
  • Emission reduction pledges and their deadlines
  • Project announcements with project deadline dates

Emissions breakdown

  • Summary statistics of emission pledge announcements
  • Interactive plot of net-zero and carbon-neutral target announcements over time
  • Pie charts of count of pledge announcements per greenhouse gas emission type and count of pledge announcements per emission scope type
  • Interactive plot of emission reduction pledge instances against a deadline and specific announcements 
  • Word map of organisations mentioned in announcements, filtered by selected entities.

Project breakdown

  • Interactive pie charts of project by scope and type
  • Interactive plot of project announcement instances across time by deadline and by planned quantity of emissions to be extracted, filtered by type of project.

Conclusion

The world of marketing is constantly changing, and we the consumer are in the eye of the storm. That said, there are many ways to identify greenwashing this year, and they are all based on simple common sense. When you are aware of the signs of greenwashing, you can ensure you are not duped, call it out and help protect the environment from potential harm. Remember, knowledge is the eye of desire and can become the pilot of the soul.

At Permutable, we are doing all that we can to try and bring transparency and accountability to the corporate world.  We know that by keeping companies accountable to their promises we can foster improved environmental governance and generate positive environmental impacts. We also know just how important it is to empower citizens and civil society to ensure that businesses see how much tackling climate change and environmental challenges is central to our daily concerns. 

And with that in mind, I’d like to leave you with one of my personal favourite quotes by Helen Keller – “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much”. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you so much for having me – I hope this article shows that if we are aware as consumers about greenwashing we can eventually show companies that we simply won’t stand for it.

    • Thank you for your contribution, Talya! It is truly wonderful to see companies like Permutable using technology to ensure a bright green future.

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