Why is greenwashing such a big issue for sustainability?

As consumers, many of us are trying to be more eco-friendly and make a difference with our purchases. However, the products we buy are not always as sustainable as we are made to think.

Greenwashing is a term you may have heard in the news, on your social media feed or from environmental groups in recent times, but what does it mean? Why is it important in today’s world? And how does it affect the houseplant industry?

Here we explain exactly why greenwashing is such a big issue for sustainability.

Key Takeaways

  • Greenwashing happens when customers are - often intentionally - mislead into believing that products are more eco-friendly than they really are.
  • 74% of consumers have purchased a product because they believe it is a greener choice which is less harmful to the environment.
  • Greenwashing risks eroding customer trust while damaging the environment.
  • The houseplant industry uses buzzwords such as 'sustainable', 'natural', 'environmentally friendly' and 'green', while flying in mature plants from abroad and using peat rich soil.
  • When buying houseplants, you should look beyond the supplier’s sustainability claims. Do your own research to make sure your houseplants are peat free and UK grown.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a PR tactic used across a wide range of sectors to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly, without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact.

It often comes in the form of bold claims, nature-inspired imagery or green buzzwords that rarely hold up when examined in more depth. It may also use vague claims and ‘green’ solutions that misdirect you and take you away from the real issues.  In a recent blog article, Greenpeace advises further on what greenwashing is and how not to fall for it.

Greenwashing aims to boost a company’s public image or to make more sales by convincing would be customers that buying from them aligns with their values. The activity exists across all sectors and companies of all sizes can be guilty of misleading their customers. Even big players such as Ikea, Starbucks and Coca-Cola have all been called out for greenwashing.

The negative impacts of greenwashing

Greenwashing aims to persuade consumers and stakeholders to view a company’s environmental footprint in a more positive light. It creates a false impression that leads investors and consumers to believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

More than 80% of consumers feel misled by sustainability buzzwords. This can be a huge problem for brands that are trying to follow genuinely sustainable processes, because consumers are becoming more confused, distrustful and sceptical towards brands that make green claims, genuine or not. 

In an interview with Forbes Magazine in September 2021, Cecilia Parker Aranha, Director of Consumer Protection for the UK's Competition and Markets Authority commented that: “Trust in green claims is fragile and, unless brands provide the right information to consumers in the right way, there's a risk that consumers will give up. That's bad for green business, bad for consumers and bad for the planet.”

Are all houseplant brands greenwashing?

Sadly, many companies in the UK houseplant industry are not always fully transparent when it comes to sustainability.  Many brands will have you believe that their beautiful houseplants are great for the planet just as much as they are for your home. But the industry has a few muddy little secrets... 

Here’s our list of claims to be wary of when buying your next houseplant:

“We plant a tree for every houseplant sold”

The first question to ask is why does the company need to plant trees?  Is it using peat to grow its plants? If not, what other activities need offsetting? Tree planting schemes can be great, but their benefits are sometimes questionable. They need to be carefully managed to have a long-term positive impact.

“We use a green delivery service”

How does the company define a ‘green delivery service’? Some couriers and delivery companies do use electric vehicles, but alongside them may also be using polluting diesel vans. So it’s worth checking what percentage of their fleet they are classifying as ‘green’. It’s something that isn’t always promoted!

Black plastic pots

Many plants are sold in black plastic pots, along with lots of other unnecessary plastic packaging, which often cannot be detected by sorting machines at recycling centres, and so end up in landfill or incinerated.

All pots used by Geb & Green are made from non-virgin plastic and are curb-side recyclable.

Key phrases to look out for to cut through the houseplant industry greenwashing:

“Proud to be peat free”

Houseplant growers that are using a peat free growing medium are proud to do so.  If a company isn’t shouting this from the roof tops, the chances are it’s because they are using peat. Buyers should be aware that most companies in the industry sell houseplants grown in peat. You can find out why peat is so important here

“UK Grown”

It’s great to know where your houseplants have been grown. If it is right here in the UK, rather than flown in from abroad, then the carbon footprint of these plants will be considerably lower.

In summary, if you wish to buy sustainably, do your research

The reason greenwashing is so prevalent is because achieving sustainability is hard. But the dangers of greenwashing go further than the immediate environmental impact. Misleading consumers affects how people feel about sustainability and damages trust between genuinely sustainable brands and their buyers, which in turn hinders progress towards global environmental targets.

Let’s create a real positive change in the houseplant industry and beyond, by asking questions, calling out misinformation, and making informed choices based on evidence.

Please share this article with others so they too can be informed when it comes to buying their next houseplants!

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