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Beware of Greenwashing

This is an excerpt from Becoming a Sustainable Runner by Christina Muir & Zoë H. Rom.

If your social media feeds look anything like ours, they’re full of brightly colored advertisements for “earth-friendly” workout tops, “eco-friendly” leggings made from 10 percent recycled ocean plastic, “circular” shoes that you can recycle, and “sustainable” apparel for every athletic pursuit imaginable. These ads represent what would be a sea change in the apparel industry. But how true are the environmental claims? Much of it is greenwashing, which happens when companies spread misleading or false sustainability claims or overemphasize bad faith attempts at eco-initiatives. As companies get hip to consumers’ desire to shop in a more environmentally friendly way, some have distorted those desires in a bad faith attempt to get business.

Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in response to the hypocrisy of superficial environmental credentials, isn’t new. It has led to a precipitous drop in consumer trust in companies’ environmental claims. While we push for greater transparency, accountability, and regulation of the most offensive industries (energy, agriculture, or, for us, running gear and apparel), we can also shop a little bit smarter when we know what to look out for when it comes to greenwashing.

When considering environmental and sustainability claims from a company, be on the lookout for signs that something isn’t quite adding up.

Look out for hidden trade-offs.

When a company suggests that a product is green based on one environmental attribute, always check the recycling math, says Simpson: “When it comes to recycled goods, keep your eye out for misleading percentages. ‘Fifty percent more recycled material’ sounds great until you find out the product only contained 1 percent recycled material in the first place.”

Think about a pair of running shoes in which the laces are made from some recycled components; it’s a small part of the shoe, particularly if no attention is paid to other important parts of the product and manufacturing like energy, water use, and carbon emissions. A recycled eyelet does not a green shoe make!

“It’s all about knowing your numbers,” says Jad Finck, VP of innovation at Allbirds. 

“If you want to make a difference with your dollars, pick brands that give you facts about their environmental footprints. Get beyond the pretty pictures and buzzwords. Allbirds quantifies the full carbon footprint of everything they make and puts that number right on the product for customers to see. Just like checking the calories of the food you buy at the grocery store, knowing your numbers is the first real step to making better choices.”

Be leery of claims.

Watch for claims that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible or supporting information, ideally with third-party certification and verification. For example, if you see a rain jacket claiming that it “uses less water,” you should wonder, “Less than what? Compared to what?” If there’s not enough context given to support the claim, it might be a greenwashing red flag. Companies pledging 1 percent for the planet or doing the work to get a B Corp certification are generally good companies to support with your purchasing dollars.

Question vague claims.

Poorly defined words like green and eco-friendly can be misinterpreted or misleading to consumers. If the company doesn’t show their work with proper data and third-party certification (the difference between “environmentally friendly” and “organically grown” cotton is huge—one has an actual definition and is verifiable), being “environmentally friendly” is about as meaningful as being “unicorn approved.” If you see the phrase “chemical-free,” run. Nothing is free from chemicals. Water is a chemical.

Ask questions about products that claim to be the lesser of two evils.

Such a claim risks distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of a category as a whole, like gas-powered cars or insecticides. The “greenest” gas car still isn’t very green, and we should always be skeptical of advertising that lets us off the hook for buying the least bad option. (You’re not, but our time and energy would still be best spent advocating for change within that category.)

Be aware of irrelevant environmental claims that are technically true but unimportant or unhelpful.

Some claims can be outright falsehoods. Markets are paying attention to the fact that consumers are increasingly interested in more ethically and sustainably produced gear, but companies are preying on our best and worst impulses. We all want to feel like we’re helping and not making things worse. It would be great if we could shop our way out of the environmental crisis, but we can’t.

For now, the best we can do is advocate for regulations that make greenwashing harder and hold companies accountable for their environmental impacts. Each purchase is a small opportunity to vote with our consumer dollar, and every day is an opportunity to assess the impacts of our consumption.

More Excerpts From Becoming a Sustainable Runner



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