Workplace diversity, social procurement, recyclable packaging, and environmental initiatives are all great ways for companies to contribute to their local community and the planet at large. They’re also fantastic ways to attract customers, which is fine, so long as a company is genuinely following through on its claims. 

If a company says they’re making moves for the environment but doesn’t back up their marketing with genuine action, this is textbook “greenwashing” and not the kind of action you want to support. To ensure you’re able to spot this devious marketing trick in the wild, consider the following five points: 

1. Sleight-Of-Hand Marketing

If a company heavily advertises its recycled packaging or tree-planting initiative, that’s all well and good. However, it’s worth doing a bit of digging to see if they’re using this single eco-friendly indicator to cover up a less than pretty picture. 

For example, Tesla has a veneer of eco-friendliness thanks to its electric cars and vociferous CEO. However, the company lacks transparency when it comes to its carbon emissions and other environmental factors. This sleight of hand allows them to attract customers who want a more sustainable mode of transport without providing any evidence that this is what they’re selling. Tesla may not be greenwashing, but the lack of transparency is certainly a red flag.

2. Buzz Words

Companies often don’t have to provide much evidence to back up the claims made in their advertising. For example, a company may offer recycled packaging, which seems great on the surface. However, the recycling process may, in fact, be more resource-intensive than another, greener alternative. If that alternative isn’t as enticing to consumers as recycled packaging, they won’t make the switch, even if it could greatly improve their environmental impact.

3. Labels From Certification Schemes

While there certainly are genuine certification labels that can help you find eco-friendly brands, there are also plenty of “certifying bodies” that have simply been established for greenwashing purposes. These organizations take payouts from companies that want to improve their eco image. In exchange, they authorize the company to use their official seal of approval, making any product (even palm oil) seem sustainable. This is the equivalent of buying your doctoral degree from a fake college.

4. Drop-In-The-Ocean Actions

If a CEO donates $2 million to clean up an oil spill, that sounds like a genuine attempt to help, right? If that CEO is the head of a multinational oil company responsible for many such spills, it’s quite literally a drop in the ocean compared to the damage they’ve done. Token acts like this are classic greenwashing.

5. Word Play And Misdirection

If you were looking at two reusable drink bottles, and one said arsenic-free but the other didn’t, you’d probably be tempted to buy the arsenic-free option, even if it was a little more expensive. Of course, neither of the products would contain this harmful chemical, but the “arsenic-free” claim implies that any bottle without such a label might leech arsenic into your water.  

Another thing to look out for is product packaging that focuses heavily on just one environmental factor. Carbon emissions, for example, are just one element of a company’s environmental impact. Attempts to make you focus on just one environmental factor may be purposeful misdirections intended to distract you from other harmful practices. 

Consider these factors the next time you’re tempted to make a purchase based on environmental factors. Every dollar you spend counts, so it’s worth making an effort to direct your spending power towards companies that truly care about preserving our habitat.