What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you see 'eco-friendly', 'natural' or 'sustainable' on a brand's packaging? You assume it's a good buy as it helps the environment, correct? Brands are well-aware of the impact these words can help on their positioning and sales and use them, often unfairly and incorrectly, to their advantage. This practice is called greenwashing.
“Greenwashing allows a company, brand or business to claim to be more environment-friendly or sustainable than it really is. This way, many customers are misled into making purchases that they think are sustainable, but in reality, aren't,” explains Deep Lalvani, Founder of Sublime Life, an online platform that connects ethical, sustainable and clean brands across the globe. Mansi Vyas, a co-founder of Azafran, an organic beauty and skincare brand based in Ahmedabad, further adds, “Greenwashing is also a big injustice to brands who put extensive research and resources and make an effort to bring forth quality products for their consumers.”
How can you spot greenwashing?
A recent review by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (a network of governmental consumer protection authorities from over 65 nations) found that 40% of sustainability claims made online could be misleading. Many brands claim an all-natural approach without any real backing to fit into the demand for 'green' products. Given that this is a largely unregulated space, it is easy for brands to get away with these false claims. The question here is, how do you spot greenwashing by brands, and how do you avoid buying them? We turned to the experts for answers.
“Consumers can look for certifications about a brand's claims and check for PETA's label or cruelty-free labels if a brand claims to be cruelty-free," advises Deep. Global certifications like ECOCERT, COSMOS, and PETA indicate that brands have tested their production facilities and are transparent about all their processes. “It is important to make a conscious and informed purchase, and that means doing your own research into the brand, its products, and its claims,” explains Megha Asher, COO & co-founder of Juicy Chemistry, an Indian brand with a completely certified organic range of beauty products. “Sometimes it so happens that all information is not readily available. In such a case, it is vital that consumers ask questions to the brands. If you're not sure whether a brand ethically sources its ingredients, simply reach out via email or social media. Make yourself heard. Also, spread the word. The more consumers understand why it's so vital to be environmentally responsible, the better purchase decisions they'll be able to make and will, in turn, be able to hold brands accountable.”
“Look beyond the brand's advertisements, celebrity endorsements and various awards,” suggests Mansi.
How can you tell if a brand is truly ethical?
The beauty and fashion industry, in particular, rides high on greenwashing. “There are several brands who cater their products to be sustainable, organic, recycled or environment-friendly wherein if you look at it closely and logically, there are no real measures or certifications to keep gauging whether they are actually delivering what they claim. For example, some brands claim to be using biodegradable material for their packaging, but if looked closely, nothing apart from the outer packaging is biodegradable. Some brands claim to be planting trees on every purchase, but again there are no official bodies to confirm or support their claim,” explains Mansi.
The last two years of the pandemic have served as a powerful reminder of the importance of brands and consumers following sustainable practices and recognising that
environmental, social, and governance (ESG) challenges can no longer be ignored. While a robust ESG framework is still needed in India, in March of this year, the new SEBI regulations require the top 1000 companies by market cap size to include a mandatory Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report (BRSR) in their annual reports. This has paved the way for ESG to be formally adopted as a yardstick for holding companies accountable for their claims.