Everything clean can be soiled and everything beautiful can be corrupted. There’s no better example for it than greenwashing.

The problem of climate change isn’t a secret to anyone. Nothing remains untouched – not the rainforests or the ocean, or metropolitans. We also know that reducing the amount of carbon emissions we create is not enough anymore.

To prevent the global temperature from rising over 1.5 degrees, we need to get rid of at least some of the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. To do that, we can plant trees, restore bogs and marshes, and clean up the world’s oceans.

More and more governments introduce new regulations. As the information about the need for a green lifestyle is spread, “green marks” that represent sustainability are used to generate greater financial returns.

To understand the seriousness of the situation, we need to understand that generally, there are only two solutions to the problem:

  1. removing the carbon dioxide that’s already in the air;
  2. neutralizing the unavoidable emissions.

However, instead of using environmentally friendly practices to save nature, “green” behavior is often part of a clever and effective campaign to attract more customers. For example, instead of leaving fossil fuels in the ground, gas and oil companies are continuously looking for new reserves, claiming what they do is carbon-neutral.

Shell, a global oil company, came out with a campaign called “Drive Carbon Neutral”. The energy company offers clients an option to pay extra for fuel, claiming the money will be used to re-absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to plant trees.

It all sounds good, excellent in fact – you don’t even have to change your habits to save the world. However, the Netherlands’ advertising watchdog discredited Shell’s promises and allegations.

French energy company Total continues to develop new oil fields near the coast of Suriname and Congo, trying to justify its actions with different environmentally-friendly solutions. Total promises to set aside money for the government of Suriname to protect the existing forests.

In the Republic of Kongo, fast-growing trees are being planted, creating a “carbon sink” as Total calls it.

These projects are controversial. Drilling is a huge threat to national forests, peatlands, and mountain areas. Simply put, it endangers natural carbon stores.

Total wants to make a rare savannah a plantation. Ecologists who have studied the area say that the place has not yet been studied enough. In other words, the project, made to compensate for the damage caused by drilling, could increase the damage.

There are other problems. In the mentioned cases, fossil fuels that lie below geological strata (an extremely stable carbon bank) are being swapped for habitats on the surface of the Earth (much less secure stores).

In 2021, North American wildfires destroyed woods that companies used to compensate for their activities. In addition, the veracity of the claims of the big corporations is often questionable.

Two of Shell’s projects have been criticized under the forests that they’re promising to protect, which may not be endangered at all.

In the heart of British Airways’ carbon neutralization campaign is Cordillera Azul national park in Peru. The organization that is behind protecting the park says that without proper protection, the area would be endangered by immigrants and raiders.

The funny thing is, Cordillera Azul was already protected before British Airways “invaded”. Furthermore, the workers of the national park say that they haven’t observed any illegal raiding since the year 2006.

Big corporations like to make big statements. They make it seem as if, in order to compensate for offset carbon, we don’t need to change the way we act. They often emphasize that you can save the world by filling up in a certain petrol station or flying with a specific airline.

These devious schemes that justify their environmentally harmful actions with empty claims are called greenwashing. Nature-based solutions should help us reduce the collapse of the environment, not speed it up.

Planet Earth does not have enough free land to soak up corporate greenhouse gas emissions. According to Oxfam, the land needed to meet carbon removal plans by companies could be five times the size of India.

To neutralize carbon emissions by the year 2050, we would need to plant 16 million km2 of forests. A lot of that land is rightfully owned by indigenous people who have not given the corporations permission to use the land. That’s called carbon colonialism.

The Glasgow Cop26 Climate Summit was held in November 2021. At the meeting, the government of Sabah in Malaysia, announced cooperation and a carbon credits deal with foreign organizations. The contract covers more than 20 000 km2 of indigenous forests which the locals were unaware of.

We need to restore life on Earth and reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as possible. Right now, though, numerous corporations use carbon offsets as a possibility to advertise their products and services.

Based on several campaigns and slogans, one might think that fast fashion has finally taken a step towards coming more planet-friendly. Climate activist Greta Thunberg considers it to be an obvious lie.

Last year, in the interview with Vogue Scandinavia, Thunberg accused fast fashion brands of greenwashing.

“Many are making it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’,” the climate activist wrote in an Instagram post following the article. “But let’s be clear: This is rarely anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

Thunberg continued, explaining that fast fashion is a huge supporter of the climate emergency “Not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposable(s).”

If we believed every green campaign, the world would seem much prettier. Unfortunately, a naive belief would lead to inactivity. If we want a better future (and a healthier present), passivity is something we cannot afford.

The effects of the meat and dairy industry on the planet have been well-known for a while. Many people have begun to prefer plant-based alternatives, such as soy, almond, and oat milk, to cow’s milk.

The Swedish oat milk brand Oatly came out with a number of advertisements, the main slogan of them being “Need help talking to dad about milk?”. The whole idea of it was that, although dads are awesome, they don’t often have a thorough knowledge of a healthy diet.

The ads compared the carbon footprint of Oatly’s milk and cow’s milk, and a plant-based diet to an omnivorous one. There was a problem, though. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that not all the claims in the campaign were fully accurate.

For example, one of Oatly’s ads said that the company produces 73% less CO2 compared to regular milk. Although that might have been true, only one of Oatly’s products (Oatly Barista Edition) was compared to full cream milk. For the comparison to be fair, all of Oatly’s products should have been observed, ASA said.

Another slogan said that the dairy and meat industries produce more carbon dioxide than all the world’s trains, planes, cars, and boats combined. According to ASA, the compared aspects weren’t equivalent. The whole life circle of the meat and dairy industry (from producing feed to using fertilizers to transporting the goods) was compared only with emissions coming directly from the mentioned vehicles.

Oatly failed to back up a total of 109 complaints that were lodged. Yet, there was one important statement that ASA never complained about: “If everyone in the world adopted a vegan diet, it would reduce food’s annual greenhouse emissions by 6.6 billion metric tons (a 49% reduction)”.

Last year Epiim, an Estonian dairy company, came out with Rohe juust (“Green cheese”). There are various slogans on the packaging of the product that attracts attention.

Analyzing the statements, Laser discovered that the green cheese might not be as green as it claims to be. Here are some of the statements explained:

The company claimed to use green energy to make Rohe juust. However, the statement wasn’t backed up in any way.

“Free from artificial colors and preservatives” should go for every and any cheese, green or not.

The text “caring farm” draws attention to a sweet picture on the front side of the package where a happy woman hugs a cow. Dagni-Alice Viidu who’s a junior researcher of Estonian University of Life Sciences said that the term “caring farm” is a vague one, as it’s hard to know what was meant by it. There are currently no specific regulations for measuring how caring a farm is.

“75% less plastic”, as it turns out only after visiting the home page of Epiim, is compared to other of the company’s products. When you look at the other products, however, they don’t seem to be wrapped in a significantly smaller amount of plastic. Unfortunately, you don’t find any information about recycling the package.

The “0 tolerance for antibiotic residues” is a nice promise and should apply not only to Epiim but all farms in the European Union. Junior researcher Viidu explains that the EU has strict standards for industrial dairy products.

Apart from the promising texts, the packaging of Rohe juust does not contain any official Estonian or European Union labels confirming the “greenness” and environmental friendliness of the product.

You’re standing in front of a grocery store’s disposable tableware section, just before going on a hike. You forgot your metal fork and knife home yet again. Does it sound familiar?

You notice a beige package instead of a bright white one that has an appealing text on it: “biodegradable”. You feel jolly inside. “I made a sustainable, environmentally friendly choice,” you think to yourself. But did you really?

That picture is from research conducted by 5Gyres. The behavior of 20 different bioplastic products was observed, both on land and in the sea over a 24-month period. The result was concerning.

Most of the studied products “decomposed” the same way as petroleum-based plastics do. Bioplastics are made from plant-based biomass. Fossil fuels are not used to produce bioplastics.

It’s often thought that plant-based plastic biodegrades or composts. Unfortunately, what the plastic is made from does not determine how well it will decompose in nature. It is determined by the molecular structure of the product.

So, the term ‘bioplastic’ does not refer to the composting of a product but only the base material from which it’s made.

“There are a lot of bioplastics or materials that are called bioplastics that are not biodegradable,” says Constance Ißbrücker, head of environmental affairs at the industry association European Bioplastics.

To avoid becoming a victim of greenwashing, it’s important to know the difference between “recyclable”, “degradable”, “biodegradable” and “compostable”.

  • Almost any product can be recycled. Unfortunately, it’s not done often enough. A sign that indicates that a product can be recycled does not mean that the consumer will actually do it.
  • All plastics decompose but they won’t disappear. They break down into smaller and smaller pieces in the sunlight and the ocean. These tiny fragments, however, won’t go anywhere.
  • Biodegradable means that the product will naturally degrade in a matter of weeks or months.
  • An industrial compost site is needed to contribute to the biodegradation of a compostable product. Most bioplastics on the market don’t degrade in the environment the way ads display. In most cases, a 50+ degree Celcius temperature is needed for these products to compost. That means you shouldn’t just throw it in the compost bin in your granny’s backyard.

At the end of the day, reducing consumption and recycling are the actions that will actually benefit the planet. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether the plastic cup, plate or fork is made from plants or not. Reusing it, rather than buying a new product, is much better for your wallet and the environment.

The good news is that the European Union decided to ban 10 single-use plastic (SUP) products. The restrictions apply to cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, balloons and sticks for balloons, food containers, cups for beverages, beverage containers, cigarette butts, plastic bags, wrappers, wet wipes, and sanitary items.

However, petroleum-based single-use plastics can be found on the shelves of many non-EU countries.

As soon as governments began measuring vehicle emissions, car manufacturers started looking for ways to cheat the system.

Already in the 70s, some car companies started providing their vehicles with “defeat devices” that turned off the exhaust when the air-conditioning was on.

Other cars were equipped with sensors that activated a “pollution control” during the emission measurement tests. 

For decades, Volkswagen tried to give the impression of being an environmentally friendly company. In 2015, the German car giant admitted the use of pollution control devices in millions of diesel cars. Thanks to the special device, Volkswagen’s vehicles passed the mentioned tests successfully. On a daily basis, though, they continued to emit a much larger amount of poisonous gases than during the tests.

It went on for years. Some of the workers had no idea, others knew exactly what they were doing. In the end, of course, the company had to put up with a lot of fines.

The scandal in 2015 was not the first nor the last one for Volkswagen. Just last year, the European Commission issued Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and Porshe more than 875 million euros ($1 billion) worth of fines, accusing them of using technology that caused excess emissions.

Questioning claims are being made by both energy companies and food brands. Global warming is taken advantage of more than ever before. While the idea behind sustainable campaigns is beautiful, we can’t look at the world through rose-tinted glasses.

 In order not to fall victim to greenwashing, we must learn to spot the scams.

The color green is often used to make a product seem environmentally friendly. Green symbolizes nature, ecology, and environment. However, it does not necessarily mean that a product wrapped in green, is planet-friendly.

The more people become aware of a sustainable lifestyle, the more companies try to catch the attention of consumers with nature-colored boxes and containers. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as many brands are willing to go. Their habits and effects on the environment most often stay the same.

When choosing a product, it’s essential to read the label. Many companies like to state what their products do not contain. That is a clever marketing trick that helps divert attention from the actual ingredients.

This kind of tactic is often used for cosmetics. For example, you might see a text in capital letters on the jar of face cream, saying it contains coconut oil (and that, after all, is natural, isn’t it?!). Only after you turn the packaging around, you’ll see that in addition to the natural ingredients, the product contains numerous toxic ones, as well.

Make sure your cosmetics do not contain:

  • Parabens (methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, potassium butylparaben);
  • Silicones (cyclomethicone, cyclotetrasiloxane, dimethicone);
  • Alkylphenols (nonxynol, heptylphenol, methylphenol);
  • Glycol ethers (acetate, phenoxytol, butylglycol, phenoxyethanol, methylglycol).

Another thing to look out for is the all-too-common 100% natural text. Take a second and check the label to see whether the claim is true, or if the ingredients include questionable “natural flavorings” (whatever these are supposed to be).

Product labels come in handy when a brand wants to inform a buyer about their product. In addition, it’s an excellent way to attract the attention of potential customers.

That’s why some brands add text to their products, saying they’re environmentally friendly. Although in some cases, these statements are true, more often than not, they’re misleading and pure fiction.

Similarly, you might spot small green logos on packages that imitate official ecolabels, observed from afar.

One brand even went so far as to create a paper package for its product that reads “Hello I’m Paper Bottle” in capital letters. It turned out that inside the paper cover, was a plastic container. It’s hard to find a better example of greenwashing.

A random green leaf or a green dot does not mean that the product is sustainable. Some companies come out with their own special eco signs. Bear in mind that these might not be in correlation with the official European Union regulations. That means, aside from the design element, symbols like these hold no value.

Official green logos that validate the sustainability of a product or service among others are

  • EU Ecolabel aka the EU Flower (in use since 1992)
  • EU Organic Logo aka the Euro-leaf
  • Bio – the official eco label of Germany (in use since 2001)
  • Nordic Ecolabel aka Nordic Swan Label (in use since 1989)
  • Fairtrade
  • Luomu – the so-called sun sign of Finland

The more new regulations are laid down, the more effort is put into overcoming them. More and more companies come out with new scammy campaigns and misleading labels. Many corporations try to take advantage of the climate crisis.

If we learn to spot their schemes, we can avoid them and call companies to order. Manipulating the health of the planet won’t lead us to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nor will it help us create a brighter future.

Real changes require real actions, not empty promises or the change of a product’s design.