It’s time the packaging industry washed its hands of ‘green sheen’, writes Ashley Moscrop
As consumers become increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of packaging, driving demand for eco-friendly solutions, many companies are eager to promote their products as such. However, not all claims of sustainability are genuine, with organisations jumping on the bandwagon to simply further sales.
These mendacious claims are made to create a positive image and appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, whilst misleading them into purchasing products they believe to be ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ when this isn’t the case.
Greenwashing, also known as ‘Green Sheen’ is a deceitful and unethical practice by companies that present themselves as socially responsible. It is a growing concern for the packaging industry, especially for those who are ethically and legitimately practicing sustainability. In an industry that is increasingly under pressure to meet consumer demand and that is often scrutinised, how easy is it to spot those who are genuine, versus those who are using greenwashing tactics?
The allure of ‘Green’ Packaging
Consumers often judge the eco-friendliness of a product based on the packaging it comes in. This can play a crucial role in the decision-making process and so in a bid to capture the growing market of environmentally conscious consumers, some brands have begun to project a green image via the terminology and language they use, staking claim to being sustainable without any actual substance.
Greenwashing in packaging can take various forms, from ‘green imagery’ including the use of misleading labels, to false claims about the recyclability of materials used, or even an exaggeration of the environmental benefits of certain packaging choices. Often companies claim to be ethical without having the accreditations or certifications to back it up.
Common greenwashing tactics in packaging include;
Vague claims: When ambiguous labels and terms such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ or ‘natural’ are used without clear definitions or proof. Always watch out for companies that can’t support their claims with reputable tests and certifications.
Overstated claims: Exaggerating the benefits of the packaging, such as claiming to be recyclable when in fact only certain parts are. However, the risks of getting it wrong could lead to brands being called out by regulators and publicly shamed.
Irrelevant information: Focusing on one small part of a product, a minor green attribute, when the rest is not environmentally friendly is a common tactic. For example, highlighting the use of 10 percent recycled content in a product or package that is otherwise harmful to the environment.
Trade Offs: Placing the emphasis on one environmental aspect whilst neglecting others. A product may claim to be recyclable, but its production may create a huge carbon footprint.
It’s worth noting that not all companies that use the above tactics are greenwashing. Genuine sustainable products may use easily recognisable ‘eco-friendly’ symbols, imagery, colourways, or phrases on their packaging. This is why it is important to be able to tell the whole story.
When choosing appropriate packaging, the objective should be to pursue a circular economy. It is also crucial to know the origin of the materials and the suppliers involved to confidently claim the use of sustainable packaging. Is it derived from a renewable source? Are you familiar with the manufacturing processes as well as the shipping origins and destinations? Each of these factors could significantly influence how consumers perceive the packaging and whether you may be held responsible for engaging in greenwashing. If the packaging is paper-based, is the source certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)? Additionally, if plastic is used, is it a recyclable option?
The impact of greenwashing on the industry and what can be done?
The act of greenwashing not only deceives consumers but also undermines the entire industry and those who are truly dedicated to promoting sustainability. This creates a challenging environment for genuine businesses to differentiate themselves and substantiate their authenticity within a crowded market. Consequently, consumers may become sceptical of brands that embrace sustainability and adopt sustainable practices. So, what measures should be taken to address the issue?
Transparency: Brands should be open about their production processes, sources of material, and the lifecycle and production impact of their products.
Clear labelling: Transparent labelling is crucial to prevent greenwashing. Packaging should clearly state the materials used, recycling instructions, and any relevant certifications to communicate the environmental attributes of the product. This transparency will enable consumers to make informed choices and distinguish genuinely eco-friendly packaging from deceptive alternatives,
Third-party certification: Accreditations and practices can help to verify claims. For example, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for paper products, or Certified Compostable for biodegradable goods. Is the company B Corp certified, a carbon-neutral company, or on a Net Zero journey? This will support proof of authenticity and intention.
Regulations: stricter regulations across the industry resulting in penalties for misleading marketing would go a long way to deterring the practice of greenwashing.
Infrastructure upgrade: There is a need for a simple, consistent recycling system throughout the UK. The implementation of a straightforward and precise bin structure that is linked to packaging and labelling would not only improve recycling rates, but it would also force brands to ensure that products are labelled accurately and correspond with the designated bins and recycling system. This approach would eliminate any ambiguity regarding the environmental friendliness of a brand’s packaging.
Whilst the move towards green and sustainable packaging is laudable, it is crucial that it be genuine. Commitment to sustainability should be demonstrated through actions and not just implied with words. Hard work is required to embed sustainability into any business and whilst accreditations and sustainable practices take time to achieve and implement, this commitment will pay dividends. Companies must do more than just pay lip service to environmental concerns. A holistic approach and transparency really is the best policy in a market saturated with false and spurious claims. This transparency would not only empower consumers to make informed choices, but it would also hold companies accountable for their claims. Brands that embrace genuine sustainability, openly and honestly will stand out and earn long-term customer loyalty.
As a business that prides itself on being sustainable and accountable, we understand only too well the hard work, time, investment, and meticulous planning that go into gaining the necessary accreditations to authentically prove ourselves. The packaging market is well-established, competitive, saturated, and ever-changing, and the demand for sustainable solutions is here to stay, so greenwashing must be stopped. By implementing stringent regulations and continuing to educate the consumer, we can collectively strive towards industry-wide, authentic, and sustainable packaging practices.
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Ashley Moscrop is Managing Director of Dufaylite