How to Fight Greenwashing

We’ve already proven that it’s really easy to greenwash floss picks and make a handsome profit as a result.

But we didn’t want to go down that road.

We wanted to make sure that we made the Element floss holder without any greenwashing.

In this article, we outline the principles that can help detect and fight greenwashing.

Principles that guide our product design as well.

This evidence-based article is supported by 6 sources. Written by Artem Cheprasov and reviewed by Arianne Soliven, PhD. Last updated: Feb. 10, 2022.

Organic Petroleum Greenwashing Image
Greenwashing
Fuzzy Greenwashing
Solutions
Takeaways

Introduction

As the makers of the Element floss holder, we want to make something very clear right from the start.

We are against the use of materials and products that are worse for the planet than viable alternatives.

At the same time, our goal is to be objective.

Objective via the use of the best available science in our product design.

In other words: we do our best to find the most reliable, consistent, and unbiased sources of scientific evidence. Then we model the data we find therein in order to figure out what’s best for the environment in the context of the products we offer.

Sometimes, the scientific evidence will clearly justify our use of an eco-friendly material.

Other times, we’ll have to accept the fact that a petroleum-based material is objectively better for the planet than an alternative commonly marketed as being “eco-friendly”.

In either case, we’ll clearly explain why we chose one material over a feasible alternative.

In this manner, we can truly do right by the planet. We can avoid a minefield replete with industry interests and superficial environmental claims.

If you agree with us that transparent scientific evidence should lead the way in eco-friendly product design, then you’ve come to the right place.

What is Greenwashing?

Free RadiKal LLC Greenwashing Image

To paraphrase Encyclopedia Britannica:

Greenwashing refers to a situation where a company, product, or service is falsely or excessively marketed as being environmentally friendly. 1

This might occur due to an unethical intent to deceive, where the author of the claim knows better but does not necessarily care about the product’s impact on the environment.

Often though, we suspect that greenwashing occurs as a result of pressure, naiveté, or ignorance.

Regardless of the root cause, greenwashing involves the use of positive-sounding terms that you have most likely seen. A few examples include:

  • Eco-friendly
  • Compostable
  • Biorenewable
  • Biodegradable
  • Recyclable
  • Sustainable

Fuzzy Greenwashing

Sometimes, greenwashing is a blatant lie that’s intended to mislead an audience.

Other times greenwashing is “fuzzy greenwashing”.

For instance, a “green” claim may only be partly true and under very specific conditions that may not even apply to the customer.

Here’s a real-world example of this.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a bioplastic that’s often greenwashed as being “eco-friendly”. In specific scenarios, it may very well be eco-friendlier than some alternatives.

Put another way: PLA might have situation-specific eco-friendliness.

But is it right for a company to generalize from there and claim that every product is eco-friendly, recyclable, or compostable just because it’s made of PLA?

Let’s see…according to recent reports by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Geographic:

  • The production of virgin PLA emits far more greenhouse gases than traditional “dirty” plastics made of petroleum. 2
  • PLA can be recyclable, but it’s rarely recycled in practice. 3
  • PLA is compostable but only in energy and heat-intensive industrial facilities. 4
  • And if like most plastics PLA is thrown into a landfill, and then finds its way into marine environments, it’ll degrade into harmful microplastics. 4

So is PLA eco-friendly, recyclable, and compostable? Or is claiming as much greenwashing?

That depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it? It depends on the product, its use, alternative materials, and what aspect of nature we wish to protect the most.

It’s “fuzzy”. It’s clearly complicated and nuanced.

Greenwashing Is a Sign of Disrespect

Most people probably want to help the planet. They want to feel good about protecting the Earth as much as possible while getting the product they need at the same time.

We think that greenwashing works so well precisely because of that dynamic.

It’s so easy to put an “eco-friendly” sticker on a product in order to trick customers into a false sense of satisfaction.

On the one hand, someone could blame the theoretical ignorance, absent-mindedness, or naiveté of the customer for greenwashing’s existence and effectiveness.

We believe that’s not right.

Customers are busy. They shouldn’t be misled. Not everyone is an environmental scientist who can clearly spot a lie. And we all make mistakes.

Moreover, a customer’s trust is a privilege, not a right.

So the privilege of telling the truth and making truly eco-friendlier products rests on the shoulders of the company.

Therefore, greenwashing is highly disrespectful towards trusting customers who mean well.

Nevermind the way that greenwashing betrays nature.

Solutions to Greenwashing

So how do we stop companies from greenwashing, be it via outright lying or fuzzy greenwashing?

We believe the solution lies, in large part, in demanding that companies define and prove every green claim that they make.

Principle A: Define It

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Just about every commonly greenwashed word can mean anything to anyone.

For example, what does it mean when a company says “our product is compostable”?

In the backyard? In an industrial facility that emits tons of greenhouse gases? Over what time period?

Broader words, like “eco-friendly”, are even harder to pin down.

Oxford University Press defines “eco-friendly” in absolute terms as something that’s “not harmful to the environment”. 5

Clearly there aren’t many (any?) products that don’t, in at least some way, harm the environment.

Cambridge University Press takes a qualified stab at “eco-friendly” as a product that’s “…designed to do the least possible damage to the environment…” 6

Things are problematic here too, though. What does “least possible” mean to you?

It’s obvious that definitions for “green” terms can vary and mean different things to different people.

This is why we believe that every company must clearly define every “green” claim they make. That way, we can all be on the same page.

For instance, at Free RadiKal we transparently explain what we mean by “eco-friendly” when we refer to the Element as an “eco-friendly reusable flosser”.

If we force all companies to define “green” terms and claims in this way, we can make smarter, well-informed, purchasing decisions. We can agree or disagree with the companies’ views and, thereby, drive industry-wide changes in the right direction.

Principle B: Prove It

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Yet we can’t rely on definitions alone.

Any company can clearly define what they mean when they say “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, or “compostable”.

But that’s not enough. Companies need to prove that they’re telling the truth.

We believe that evidence for eco-friendly claims must rest on the following pillars:

  • Objectivity
  • Replicability

Objectivity

By objectivity we mean one of three possible things.

1. Easily observable claims

Some “green” claims are obviously true or false, no need for scientific evidence.

For example, if a company claims that their product is eco-friendly because it uses less floss than an alternative, then a simple demonstration of this will suffice.

A clinical trial is overkill.

2. General science claims

Some claims need scientific backing but don’t always require new research.

As a case in point, a company may claim that they chose recycled stainless steel as their material of choice for their product. Perhaps it’s because the production of this material emits fewer greenhouse gases than viable alternatives.

The company should reference unbiased, reliable, and consistent scientific evidence that shows that this is actually the case.

3. Product-intrinsic claims

In other situations, things are a lot more subtle and will require new evidence.

Such is the case with product-intrinsic claims.

For example, pretend a company makes a product out of recycled stainless steel.

The company further implies that their product is durable because it’s made of stainless steel. This is no longer a general science claim. The company isn’t saying stainless steel is durable (general science). They’re implying that their product, because it’s made of stainless steel, is durable (product-intrinsic claim).

There is a difference.

Stainless steel may be generally and relatively durable. But that’s not always true. Poor manufacturing practices or product design may alter a material’s product-specific durability.

So it’ll be up to the company to define “durable” and to transparently prove their product is exactly that.

As another example of a product-intrinsic claim, a company may state that their product is composed of 100% wheat straw. They should openly share the chemical analyses that prove this claim.

Otherwise, how do we know some plastic wasn’t secretly added to the product?

Replicability

Of course, it’s easy to falsify scientific results that back product-intrinsic claims.

That’s why each piece of scientific evidence for such claims must follow one or (ideally) both of the following guidelines:

A. The scientific evidence must be replicable

The company should transparently share all of the necessary references and data that would allow their results to be independently replicated by any third-party entity. As part of this, the company should allow anyone to test their product without fear of retribution or being silenced.

B. The scientific evidence should be independently verified

Everyone makes mistakes. Science is full of human and random biases that lead to unintentionally wrong results.

This is why each company should submit their product to a properly licensed, relevantly qualified, and reputable professional organization that will independently verify the original results.

The independent results, as well as the name of the independent organization, should be openly published for all to appraise.

Conclusion

By defining and then proving a “green” claim with objective, transparent, and verifiable evidence, we can remove much of the “fuzz” surrounding greenwashing.

This will allow us to simultaneously meet the needs of people and planet to the best of our ability.

Moreover, we can all agree that there is no perfect eco-friendly material. Even products made out of 100% natural things take a toll on the planet in one form or another.

Because of this, we believe true sustainability starts with creating reusable, repairable, and durable products. All else equal, such products need fewer resources and create less waste than their disposable alternatives.

If one day, a perfectly eco-friendly, durable, and safe material is invented, then of course it should be incorporated into a product. Until then, we’ll have to choose from imperfect materials in order to create reusable products that will nonetheless be much better for the planet than single-use alternatives.

3 Key Takeaways

  • Greenwashing is an unfortunate form of marketing aimed at well-meaning customers.
  • We believe that reliable scientific evidence should drive the design of eco-friendly products.
  • Companies must clearly define and transparently prove every “green” claim they make.

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  1. Greenwashing | marketing. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 12, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/greenwashing
  2. US EPA O. Background Chapters for Greenhouse Gas Emission, Energy and Economic Factors Used in the Waste Reduction Model (WARM). Published November 2020. Accessed September 12, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/documents/warm_background_v15_10-29-2020.pdf
  3. US EPA O. Containers, Packaging, and Non-Durable Good Materials Chapters for Greenhouse Gas Emission, Energy and Economic Factors Used in the Waste Reduction Model (WARM). Published November 2020. Accessed September 12, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/documents/warm_containers_packaging_and_non-durable_goods_materials_v15_10-29-2020.pdf
  4. Bioplastics—are they truly better for the environment? Accessed August 28, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/are-bioplastics-made-from-plants-better-for-environment-ocean-plastic
  5. eco-friendly adjective – Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com. Accessed September 12, 2021. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/eco-friendly
  6. eco-friendly. Accessed September 12, 2021. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/eco-friendly