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Greenwashing: Why Sustainable Design Isn't Always What It Seems

Posted on Sep 12, 2017, by Michael Eckert

Sustainability has been shown to have a major impact on consumers’ purchasing decisions, leading some companies to work - and sometimes overwork - the ‘green angle’ into their marketing efforts. This means it has become increasingly difficult for designers to differentiate between truly sustainable products and materials, and those where the green claims have been exaggerated.

This practice - of making exaggerated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product - is known as 'greenwashing'. At best, greenwashing is used to make a company appear more 'green' or environmentally friendly than they are; at worst, it's a way to distract from other business practices that may actually be damaging the environment.

Today we're looking at two increasingly prevalent examples of greenwashing, to help differentiate between exaggerated claims and truly sustainable design options.

Biophilia: The Latest Design Trend to be Greenwashed

What is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design is the practice of incorporating elements of nature into the built environment. In particular, it emphasises the benefits of natural light, access to greenery, and views of nature.

Several studies have shown the benefits of biophilic design: for example, after incorporating aspects of biophilic design into the workplace, one study recorded an immediate 13% boost to wellbeing, and an 8% increase to productivity.

Thanks to the tangible benefits it offers, biophilia is currently a hot trend for designers working with organizations looking to improve health and wellness for their employees, and to adopt a 'greener' stance. However, this has led some manufacturers to shoehorn biophilic ideas into their product marketing materials, or to over-state the 'green' element of their products.

How to Spot Greenwashed Biophilia

The central tenet to biophilic design is incorporating elements of nature in your design.

The most common example of greenwashed biophilia is when the 'elements of nature' concept gets stretched to fit with whatever new product the company is launching. For instance, bringing plants and greenery into a commercial space by incorporating a living wall in your design is an example of true biophilic design. In contrast, selecting green carpet with a high pile height because it's 'reminiscent of grass' is clearly stretching the idea of 'natural elements' to its limit.

Has Recycling Been Greenwashed Too?

Another example of greenwashing centers around recycling.

It's very common to see companies highlighting the amount of recycled material that goes into their products, as a way of emphasizing how 'green' their products are. However, with a bit of research about the company's manufacturing processes, you may find that their products aren't recyclable, or that they don't run a recycling scheme themselves.

Much like greenwashed biophilia, this practice changes the sustainability narrative to fit the company's actions, conveniently glossing over the rest of the story.

How to Avoid Falling for Greenwashing Spin

With sustainable design growing in popularity and importance, your job as a designer is to specify the real deal: products from manufacturers who view sustainability as a priority, not just a marketing opportunity. Here are a couple of ways to identify truly sustainable products:

  • Look for a track record of sustainability - when it comes to greenwashing, many of the worst offenders are organizations without a strong history of sustainability. As a result, they make exaggerated claims to make their processes appear greener than they really are, to try and stand-out against more established competitors.
  • Look out for tenuous claims and measures - there's a big difference between companies sharing that they've 'reduced CO2 emissions by 30%', and saying they've 'developed a new, greener manufacturing process'. Vague claims that sound great are probably little more than wishful thinking combined with clever marketing.

Sustainability is at the heart of good design, helping to create a space that looks fantastic, but also benefits the environment. While it's sensible to be cautious in the face of extravagant green claims, it's also worth remembering that for many manufacturers, sustainability really is a priority - just like it is for you and your clients.

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Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert