By Kelly Smith, Plastic Free SA Project Coordinator
As a culture we’re quickly embedding environmental considerations into the heart of our decision-making processes; as individuals, governments, communities and businesses.
The demand for ‘green’ products is only continuing to grow, and marketers are more than willing to tap into our concerns about the environment for their own benefit.
Which is why we need to be ever vigilant of 'greenwashing'.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is something which “makes people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
These days there are a lot of buzzwords thrown around such as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘eco-friendly’, and whilst these can have meaning on their own, without credible certifications or independent verification, these terms are often simply false and misleading greenwashing.
Why do companies greenwash?
Most of the time, a company that greenwashes isn’t straight out lying, but employing clever marketing tactics to capitalise on our growing demand to do the right thing. It is often the lack of information, or deliberately unclear information, that is used to ‘greenwash’.
So, what’s the problem? Essentially, greenwashing reduces our confidence in environmental claims and disadvantages ethical traders. It also has negative effects on our environment and increases contamination of our waste streams.
Greenwashing in food packaging
Sadly, many café and restaurant owners falsely believe that they are making environmentally sound choices, when in fact, through no fault of their own, they have been misguided by false claims. This can be quite deflating and shows the damaging nature of greenwashing on our confidence as a community to make real changes.
“I thought we had the “eco” coffee cup lids, but it turns out there were polystyrene, I didn’t even know you could get polystyrene lids” - Café Owner
Many items on the market that make “eco” claims are ripe with hidden plastics and other nasties. If a product does not conform to industry accepted composting standards, then it may very well contain some kind of glue, ink, chemicals, dye or hidden lining that would affect its ability to compost safely.
Unfortunately, when it comes to clear labelling of food packaging, there is little regulation, contributing to the problem of greenwashing. A national industry wide adoption of a clear labelling system with increased regulation would assist.
If greenwashing is so common, how can I tell if a product is legitimate?
Words should mean things, but sometimes they’re employed to misdirect us and their meaning is hollow. For example, if used without any proof or composting standards, these words or phrases can be a sign of greenwashing:
- All-Natural / Natural
- Safe for the Environment
- Good for the Earth
- Environmentally Friendly
- Biodegradable / Bio
- Made from Plants
Confusingly, these words are also legitimately used by products that can back up their claims. To get to the bottom of whether or not a product is worth your investment, it is best to look out for third party certification.
Certifications and Labelling
Products can be certified compostable, which means it is proven to break down in a specific timeframe under specific conditions. If a product claims compostability, it must be backed up with a certification. In Australia, the industry standards are the Australian Standard for Home Composting (AS 5810) or the Australian Standard for Commercial Composting (AS 4736). Look out for these symbols when choosing your packaging.
Most compostable products sold in Australia are certified to European or American Standards, however most composters do not accept these for composting under Australian conditions. While these are a better choice than products with no certification, the best solution would be government policy to require all products to be certified to the Australian Standard.
Be wary of symbols used by marketers to indicate supposed biodegradability or compostability, but that are not linked to a standard.
Look out for ambiguous claims such as “17% less plastic”, where the consumer may not know what is being compared or whether the statement is true. There may be no evidence to support the claim, and whilst it may make the consumer feel better, without evidence it is likely not an environmentally beneficial choice.
Look out for the following:
● ‘Oxo-biodegradable’ (or ‘oxo-degradable’ or ‘degradable’) and ‘photodegradable’ are used to lead us into believing a ‘biodegradable plastic’ product is a better alternative.
These are simply plastics with chemical additives that promote limited degradation under certain conditions with no evidence they will biodegrade. The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-biodegradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution.
● ‘Recyclable’ is also often used as a term to make customers feel good about their purchases, when that product may, in reality, have limited recyclability. A good example of this is foil lined cartons, many of which carry the recyclable symbol but are not recycled in any state in Australia. Unless you know that a product can 100% be recycled in your local recycling facility, do not believe the recycling claims on the packaging.
Imagery and branding is also used to portray meaning without actually defining a product as an environmentally sound choice. It is commonplace to see green and brown colours, as well as images of leaves and trees to make consumers feel good.
Marketers know that most people will simply fill in the blanks and make assumptions that the product is better. Of course, many legitimate products use this imagery as well, making it confusing. Don’t be fooled by imagery, look for composting certifications.
Key tips to see through greenwashing
What to avoid:
● Anything that is oxo-degradable, photodegradable or degradable
● Anything claiming to be biodegradable without also being labelled compostable
● Relying on imagery for choices
● Making assumptions - e.g. made from plants does not mean compostable
What to be wary of:
● Vague and unsubstantiated terms
● Products promoted as being recyclable without the availability of collection and processing facilities that can recycle that item
● Sneaky plastics - not all plastic is obvious. Look for hidden lining, glues etc.
● Ambiguous claims - e.g. 17% less plastic
● Products claiming biodegradability and/or compostability without third-party certifications
What should I ask for when ordering from my supplier?
● Ask for certified compostable products. Asking for a particular brand is not enough as very few brands stock an entire certified compostable range.
● Ask for FSC certified paper or board products, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guarantees that forest products come from responsibly managed sources.
● If a product seems natural, check for plastic lining (do the rip test – slowly tear it and you will see the plastic lining - see how in our video below).
Yes, greenwashing can be common but there are companies that are doing the right thing and should be supported. We continually monitor the Australian packaging industry and seek out proof of certification. And we’re happy to say that there are many brands with products that walk the talk.