Greenwashing gone mad!

May 16, 2023

As businesses scramble to find ways to appeal to an eco-savvy consumer base, they are falling victim to ill-informed and simplistic solutions that really aren’t doing anything to protect the environment, and are effectively misleading consumers in the process.

There’s increasing reports around the implementation of greenwashing rules in the UK but my fear is that they will only look at big business.

What sort of eco-friendly claims should consumers be looking out for when purchasing from SMEs?

1. Carbon credits and off-setting

It’s becoming a new phenomenon for companies to market themselves as carbon neutral or carbon negative simply by entering into the voluntary carbon market and purchasing carbon credits. Buying these ‘offsets’ as the sole means to mitigate your GHG emissions simply does not make you an eco-friendly business, and more worryingly there is no guarantee that this perceived carbon reduction hasn’t been double counted as this is a largely unregulated market. 

Some of the criticisms surrounding offsetting include concerns around overestimation of emission reductions, disruption to communities and the environment, derivation off offsets from energy projects that would have happened regardless, and the use of tree planting which doesn’t have a tangible effect until the trees have actually grown. In order to be more sustainable, brands should be using their GHG emissions data to actually reduce their footprint, not use offsetting mitigations to continue business as usual. 

2. Going plastic-free

Brand owners and consumers are being fooled into believing that plastic is the real enemy and removing it will solve all of the world's problems, when in fact plastic only makes up a small percentage of total material usage. Repeated LCAs have shown that plastic is actually more eco-friendly than paper, even when it isn’t recycled. Some claims about plastic-free packaging are even more misleading:

  • ‘Made from bioplastic’. Bio-plastic is still plastic and should be marketed as such!
  • ‘Biodegradable and recyclable’. Companies should be careful when looking at claims about biodegradable and compostable plastics, they are still plastic too - many types are only suitable for composting at industrial facilities, or are made from regular pouch materials that contain additives to make them break down quicker. They also risk contaminating the plastics waste stream for traditional plastics. 
  • ‘Paper only’. Paper isn’t necessarily better for the environment according to LCA studies and it doesn’t all get recycled, notwithstanding the fact that its generally a pretty poor solution for protecting products and can harm the shelf-life of products, leading to more wastage. 
  • ‘Aluminium can be infinitely recycled’. Being infinitely recyclable is a bit of a fallacy - the reason that aluminium gets recycled more than plastic is because it is a more valuable material to recycle and recover. Aluminium production requires a lot of energy, transportation, causes damage to the environment during the mining process and is a heavier finished material to transport, resulting in high carbon emissions. Just because something gets recycled, it doesn’t make it environmentally friendly in the first place. 

3. Paper-based packaging

Whilst paper solutions seem like an obvious choice for brand owners, the reality is that many paper packaging products actually have a layer of plastic to make them sealable and protect products from spoilage. It is very easy to look at packaging and assume its green just because it has a paper covering, however brand owners should really be considering the end of life of their packaging and then make a decision before deciding on the best way forward - it is well known that a mixture of paper and plastic actively reduces the recyclability of both paper and plastic. As the infrastructure grows in the UK for the collection and recycling of flexible plastics, brands will increasingly need to look at mono-material solutions as the eco-friendly packaging option.

As always please feel free to contact me with any constructive feedback - I’m always happy to amend my content if I’ve made an error. 

“I want to start the conversations that help to dispel the myths around sustainability”

– Elliot Hyams