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How Designers Can Avoid Falling for Greenwashing

Posted on Sep 21, 2016, by Mike Brown

A 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. With sustainability efforts shown to have such a major impact on consumers’ purchasing decisions, some companies have increasingly worked the ‘green angle’ into their marketing efforts.

Today I’m looking at what greenwashing is, and how you can avoid falling for exaggerated or misleading sustainability claims.

What is Greenwashing?

Think of greenwashing as whitewashing, done from an environmental (green) perspective.

In mild cases, greenwashing can just be a simple stretch of the truth, overemphasizing the environmental impact of a particular business practice or manufacturing process. But in worse cases of greenwashing, it serves to distract the purchaser from the company’s other practices, some of which may directly damage the environment.

So how can you avoid falling for greenwashing?

How to Specify for Sustainability for Your Clients

If sustainability is a priority for your clients, your job as a designer is to specify the real deal: products from manufacturers who view sustainability as a business priority, not just a marketing opportunity.

When specifying for your clients, here are four things you can look for, to help you avoid falling for greenwashing spin.

1) Look for a Track Record of Sustainability

How long has sustainability been a priority for this manufacturer?

If it’s been a priority in their marketing materials and on their website for a long time, that’s a good sign that sustainability is a real priority for the manufacturer.

If, on the other hand, the company has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons (such as environmental damage, staff layoffs, product risks), and only now is messaging around their sustainability record making it into their marketing, this should be a red flag for you.

2) Are Their Sustainability Claims Precise?

Vague sustainability claims are another red flag. For example, there’s a big difference between a manufacturing process that has “made a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions over the past 5 years”, and a company’s “new, greener manufacturing process that’s better for the environment”.

3) Look for Third-Party Sustainability Certifications

Certifications from a third-party provide an objective assessment of a company’s sustainability efforts. However, some ‘green’ certifications carry more weight than others. Government-standard certifications (such as LEED) are reputable and a good sign, as are industry-standard ones. For example, the carpet and flooring industry has the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label.

4) Focus on Whole of Life, not End of Life

One of the most common acts of greenwashing is the emphasis on recycling. Companies make a lot of noise about how recyclable their products are, or how much recycled content is in their product, while having manufacturing processes that use much more energy and create much more environmentally-damaging waste than their competitors.

Recycling focuses the sustainability question on the end of life of their product, but that is just the last chapter in a (hopefully) long product lifecycle. If you’re specifying carpet for your clients, you should also consider:

  • Manufacturing process – how energy efficient is it, and how much waste is generated?
  • Installation process – how much waste is generated during this?
  • Useable life – how long will this carpet last? Would an alternative last longer?
  • Emissions during its useable life – does this carpet contain compounds that are detrimental to Indoor Air Quality?
  • End of life – can this carpet be reused (for example, via a manufacturer’s Take Back Program), or recycled?
  • Health and wellness – how will this carpet help improve the health and wellness of the people that use it, day in and day out?

For products other than carpet, you will need to consider different factors, but should still reframe your focus to look at the whole of its life, not just its end-of-life. Your clients are paying for products they can use, not products they can recycle.

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Mike Brown

Written by Mike Brown