How to avoid greenwashing with packaging claims

Greenwashing is an exaggeration of a brand’s eco credentials. It’s an increasingly popular tactic which some companies may employ in order to market themselves, and their products, as being more environmentally friendly than they are. With vague wording as well as eye-catching packaging and logos, greenwashing claims can easily trick well-intentioned buyers.

One example of greenwashing comes from Australian beauty brand Bondi Sands. Aware of the global concern for the state of the Great Barrier Reef, Bondi Sands claimed that its sunscreen products were "reef-safe". It’s likely that many environmentally conscious beach-goers chose their products at least in part due to this claim.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a marketing ploy unsupported by facts:  an investigation by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth later found that Bondi Sands' sunscreen products contained oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common ingredients in many sunscreens which are harmful to coral reefs.

This happens with packaging too: as it’s something we usually throw away shortly after unpacking our product, brands will take great pains to let us know that the packaging is eco-friendly. But is it really? Telling greenwashing apart from honest efforts by a company to be environmentally friendly is not always easy, but there are some important tips to keep in mind.

How to spot greenwashing in action

Firstly, don’t trust any vague claims. Packaging described as sustainable or eco-friendly with no other information as to why it’s those things may be a red flag. What are the materials used? How is it produced? Can it be recycled? Are all questions to ask. Read the fine print to see if the information is there; if not, it’s probably safer to walk away.

Even if you do find more detailed information, you should look for credible certifications on the packaging to confirm it. Companies may be telling you that their product and its packaging are 100% eco-friendly, but this will ideally be backed up by trusted credentials.

There are several certifications from a variety of trustworthy bodies such as the Biodegradable Products Institute, Forest Stewardship Council, Global GreenTag, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and many more. Familiarizing yourself with their labels will go a long way towards ensuring you do not fall for greenwashing.

Finally, research the company's sustainability practices; if they have a history of environmental violations or controversies, for example, you’ll likely find information online.

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