Apr 19 • 3 min read
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Interdisciplinary Event Series
Illustration Credit: Jon Krause

A recent study found that 64% of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products but most (74%) do not know how to identify them. With all of the options available online, at grocery stores, at the farmers market and beyond, it can be difficult to know if the decisions we make are truly “green”–especially with companies employing tactics such as greenwashing to stay competitive.

“There is a gap between the values people perform, things like wanting to buy green products, and their actual behavior,” Todd Schifeling, professor in the Department of Management, said during a recent Translational Research Center event, Green Businesses vs. Greenwashing: Role of Corporates in Managing Climate Crisis. “Part of this might be due to this credibility problem. Customers can’t act on their values if they don’t believe in the green claims of companies.” 

Greenwashing is the process of giving a false impression or making unsubstantiated claims about the sustainability of a company’s products or services. Greenwashing can be complicated and hard to spot and sometimes leads to ambivalence towards sustainability. 

According to Schifeling, there are a few things to look out for to help you spot examples of greenwashing in order to make more informed decisions with your wallet. 

Greenwashing can be about false claims that don’t mean what they seem to. 

He suggests consumers be wary of claims without precise meanings. Examples include “natural,” “simple,” “green” or “environmentally friendly.” 

Instead, look for precise and rigorous features such as “organic,” “Equal Exchange fairly traded” and “made with 100% renewable energy.”

Greenwashing is also often about claims that are true but distract from the company’s larger environmental problems.

Shoppers should maintain a level of awareness about claims that do not relate to the product’s main environmental issues. For example, tortilla chips that are “gluten-free” (even though wheat is not an ingredient in this product category), bottled water with recyclable packaging (even though water and energy use are the main issues for this product category), or an animal cruelty-free product line from a company that makes other products with animal testing.

Instead, look for products that are better for the environment based on core issues for the product, such as organic tortilla chips made without palm oil and water filters that help replace bottled water, as well as products that are aligned with a company’s larger commitment to environmental progress like B Corporations. A Certified B Corp is a for-profit corporation that has been certified by B Lab, which is a nonprofit company that measures a company’s social and environmental performance. The certification is holistic across issues and importantly, applies to an entire company or subsidiary, as opposed to a single product line.

“B Corps are, in part, another step in the escalating competition in the marketplace,” Schifeling says. “It really does benefit all of us. These are really substantive and important things that companies are doing.”

What does the future of sustainability look like? 

While it is helpful to keep Schifeling’s suggestions in mind when making decisions on a daily basis, the future of sustainability may require more transparency. 

“The onus should not be on consumers to search for every purchase they make,” Monica Wadhwa, research impact director at the TRC and moderator of the Research Connect event said. “To have to go on the Internet and search for 30 minutes and to ask, ‘Is this business green, what are the ingredients that they are using?’ I sometimes do that, but I often don’t have a lot of time to do that. I’m sure many other consumers are in the same boat.” 

Wadhwa and Schifeling both noted the potential for having an app where you can scan a code on products to get insight into its carbon footprint, Securities and Exchange Commission disclosures and more.

With a smartphone, consumers can scan a wine label to read reviews and tasting notes on a bottle of wine. Why couldn’t consumers make better use of apps with sustainability information too?

Department of ManagementEnvironmentgreenwashingTranslational Research Center