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At the end of January 2021, the European Commission published new data showing how companies purposely ‘exaggerate’ their sustainability commitment, incurring in the phenomenon of greenwashing.

The term greenwashing was coined in 1986 by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a critical essay about the “save the towel” movement in hotels. As a matter of facts, he claimed that the hospitality industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy when in fact it was designed as a cost saving measure. What can be seen as the golden standard of corporate greenwashing was in the mid 1980s, when a famous oil company commissioned a series of tv and print ads to convince the public of its environmental bonafides.

These ads showed employees protecting bears, sea turtles and other endangered animals with the aim of diverting sustainability claims to cover a dubious environmental record. Today, the term greenwashing, is understood as being the process of giving false impression and information about the sustainability of products making consumer believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. This phenomenon has increased in recent years as consumers demanded a renewed attention on the sustainability of goods and their increased motivation in buying environmentally sound commodities. 

This year, the European Union and national consumer protection authorities released the results of a ‘sweep’, a screening carried out simultaneously on different websites to trace and identify breaches of European consumer law in online markets. The focus of this sweep was on companies claiming to sell environmentally friendly products with the aim of empowering consumers to make more sustainable choices.

The results showed that many of the green claims on company’s websites were misleading, false and potentially illegal. In particular, on 344 ‘suspicious’ sustainability claims made online, 42% resulted as deceptive and potentially unfair under the Unfair Commercial Practices directive (UCPD) . In most of the cases, 59%, the trader has been shown to not being able to back up its claims with easy and accessible data making it impossible for the buyers to judge the accuracy of the sustainability of the firm.  

All in all, as the Commission’s sweep highlighted that corporations have been showed eager to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products. However, the consumer has the last word. With their purchasing power they can decide which company to support researching its sustainability and holding it accountable for its actions. The best way to avoid greenwashing is to make informed choices when buying a product online, avoiding sites that use unclear language, suggestive pictures and irrelevant claims to give an unjustified green impression.  

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