Decoding the rainbow: greenwashing, bluewashing, and honest marketing

Decoding the rainbow: greenwashing, bluewashing, and honest marketing

How much do you really know about the products you buy and the companies you buy from? This is the burning question that consumers are increasingly grappling with as their awareness of environmental and ethical considerations grows. The once-trusted household brands, fortunate in enjoying the utmost levels of consumer confidence for a long time, now find themselves in the hot seat, victims to growing skepticism and answering to scrutiny around their sustainability and ethical credentials.

Remedying this shift in consumer expectations was radical transparency, the movement that puts greater information in the customer’s hands, providing unprecedented visibility into their practices and prompting organisations to make better decisions. It didn’t take long for governments and regulatory bodies to get on board, leading to the implementation of laws, one being the Green Claims Directive, introduced last year. The directive looks to ban greenwashing and misleading product information, requiring companies to substantiate the voluntary green claims they make in commercial practices. This year, the European Parliament gave it its final green light, with 593 votes in favour of protecting consumers from misleading marketing practices and signaling a broader commitment to aligning business practices with genuine sustainability goals.

So, with greenwashing, bluewashing, and other forms of misleading information remaining pivotal issues, what can the industry do to pave the way for a more transparent, ethical, and consumer trust-driven future?

Decoding greenwashing

Greenwashing, although arguably a saturated term, has become a buzzword itself, and refers to the practice of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about a company’s environmental practices, and/or the environmental benefits of a product or service. Coined in 1986 by environmentalist, Jay Westerveld, he introduced the term “greenwashing” when he scrutinised the hotel industry for placing notices in rooms, encouraging towel reuse as an environmental measure. He criticised the practice, noting that the hotels were making minimal efforts to reduce energy use and waste. Westerveld argued that the real objective was to boost profits, thus coining the term “greenwashing” to describe such actions.

In relation to the beauty industry, greenwashing can involve companies over-exaggerating their commitments to sustainability, natural ingredients, cruelty-free practices, amongst others – without substantial evidence. Shedding light on the pervasive issue of greenwashing in the beauty industry, Amarjit Sahota, Founder of Ecovia Intelligence, the specialist research company focused on global organic industries, says green marketing and making green claims has become “ubiquitous” in the beauty industry.

Sahota says: “It is quite common for brands to market their products as eco-friendly, green, vegan, natural, or having low environmental impact. The issue lies in how to verify such claims. One of the best ways to substantiate and give legitimacy is to adopt standards and/or gain certification via sustainability schemes and ethical labels.” Sahota underscores the importance of adopting standards in substantiating environmental claims within the beauty industry, highlighting NATRUE and COSMOS as prominent certification schemes for global natural and organic cosmetics. “Brands and ingredient suppliers can also consider adopting schemes such as Climate Neutral, Fairtrade, and Nordic Swan, which assure consumers that they have met third party standards,” concludes Sahota.

Echoing his views, Dr. Mark Smith, Director General of NATRUE, the international association specialising in natural and organic certification on natural beauty and cosmetics, highlights the significance of third-party certification as a reliable means of promoting product transparency and bolstering consumer trust.

“In conjunction with compliance to existing regulation, third-party certification to rigorous label criteria requirements can help to reassure consumers and provide a basis for comparison between products bearing the same logo,” he says. “When it comes to achieving transparency and trust, a defined characteristic must be traceable throughout the supply chain, meaning that the chain of custody for that characteristic must be maintained. It becomes a fundamental task for manufacturers to adopt clear and standardised best-practices throughout the supply chain, provide verifiable information, and engage in regular third-party certifications.”

NATRUE, established in 2007, serves as a certification body advocating for an official regulatory definition of the product claims ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ The association introduced its internationally recognised NATRUE label criteria in 2008, focusing on brands committed to combating greenwashing through third-party certification. The criteria cover various aspects of the supply chain, including sourcing, formulation, and packaging, requiring a minimum of 75% of a brand’s products to undergo certification for obtaining the NATRUE seal.

Dr. Barbara Olioso, CEO of The Green Chemist Consultancy, and a cosmetic chemist expert in green cosmetic formulations, expands on the topic of improved transparency, highlighting the delicate balance between “being credible and being legal” when it comes to certain claims. “If the regulations make it too heavy and too expensive to make a certain claim, we’ll end up with very dull, vague claims and consumers will be left bored and confused. But we also need to be cautious about not overburdening the regulatory framework to maintain the possibility of making exciting and impactful eco claims.” She goes on to highlight that transparency should extend to various parameters such as energy consumption, carbon footprint, water usage, and social impact.

Bluewashing making waves

While greenwashing represents a malpractice associated with unsubstantiated, vague, or misleading claims centered around environmental product claims, Dr. Smith highlights this malpractice can also be associated with social sustainability claims, called “bluewashing”; greenwashing, but focused on social and economic responsibility.

The term was first used to refer to companies who signed the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), an initiative that encourages corporates to implement sustainability and social responsibility policies into their businesses with its key principles centering around human rights, labour, environment, and anti-corruption. Organisations signed up without aligning to its humanitarian framework, resulting in a false narrative of commitment to social responsibility and coining the term “bluewashing”, and was criticised due it its non-binding nature and failing to hold signatories accountable.

The issue of bluewashing can be a difficult one; predominantly due to its subjective nature and the complexity of assessing social and community impacts. Dr. Olioso points out that determining what is considered fair, such as wages, can be particularly challenging due to regional and cultural differences, highlighting her experience when a supplier approached her with fair-trade claims, but she struggled to obtain clear information about the wages they paid.

She explains: “When I started my consultancy, a supplier approached me with the fair-trade concept. I asked about the wages they pay their people, but I never received a clear answer. What is considered fair can be subjective, and it depends on how this fairness takes place. But is it just about wages? Even if there are women with fair wages, men might still be in charge. It can be difficult to break these ancient molds, as what might be shocking for us could still be good for them.”

Dr. Olioso also notes the lack of data conversations with workers on the ground, creating a significant barrier to understanding. She highlights that industry pioneers, such as The Body Shop, disrupted communities positively by fostering authentic partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), ensuring authenticity and monitoring projects.

“The Body Shop was the pioneer of these initiatives,” she says. “They truly disrupted the lives of these communities. There’s also Neil’s Yard; a few years back, they discussed frankincense, a hero ingredient sourced from a cooperative to avoid overharvesting and involved an element of education. Natura is another interesting brand that focuses on education rather than simply providing monetary assistance. They help communities crop efficiently and protect biodiversity.

“These stories demonstrate it is more effective when these projects are done in partnership with NGOs, who are on the ground and understand how things work. A partnership ensures the partner monitors and ensures the authenticity of the project.”

In Sahota‘s opinion, bluewashing is not as widespread as greenwashing, but is on the rise: “Although on the increase, bluewashing is not as prevalent as greenwashing in the beauty industry. It is more linked to sustainability reporting whereby companies need to show they are addressing their social and economic impact, so they are resorting to bluewashing to show they are taking steps to improve these credentials.”

Fibs or facts

Marketing plays one of the most crucial roles in the beauty industry, directly shaping consumer perceptions, influencing purchase decisions, and driving sales. The concept of “honest marketing” has gained prominence as a response to greenwashing and bluewashing, and consumers are becoming increasingly more vigilant to misleading information. Today, the industry is exploring more ways to promote genuine practices that build trust and credibility in cosmetics and personal care.

Dr. Olioso highlights “cherry-picking”, a dishonest tactic where companies focus on individual ingredients rather than the whole product. She emphasises the need for a holistic approach: “Cherry-picking is a deceptive strategy, where brands focus on one fair-trade ingredient while neglecting the overall formula’s quality. For me, honesty lies in taking a holistic approach to formulation. One brand that stands out in this regard is Pai Skincare which holds the COSMOS Natural Certification and is accredited by the Soil Association. These certifications validate their claims, adding credibility.”

Also touching on cherry-picking, Dr. Smith explains the ramifications of a certain claim being linked to a particular ‘hero’ ingredient and not the full life cycle assessment (LCA) of a whole product. He says: “The focus on a single aspect of the product may give the false impression that the whole product is environmentally friendly. Consequently, using vague and broad messaging, unclear statements, and misleading images, these claims are seen as exaggerating the green credentials, increasing market confusion, undermining the credibility and growth of the sector, and threatening consumer trust.”

Dr. Olioso, Dr. Smith, and Sahota come to a unanimous agreement that certification standards such as NATRUE, COSMOS and other third-party frameworks become crucial shortcuts to convey authenticity.

Sahota also adds that the adoption of the Green Claims Directive by the European Commission reflects a positive step for the industry. “European consumers have been falling victim of false marketing and misleading green claims,” he says. “These measures will reduce the proliferation of ethical labels and schemes, providing greater transparency and consumer protection.”

However, finding a balance between compliance and consumer appeal remains a work in progress. Honest marketing, transparency, and legitimacy in the cosmetics industry is not just about certifications and frameworks; it is about proving true performance and action. As the industry continues to grapple with the challenges of greenwashing, bluewashing, and other deceptive practices, just like cream, brands that embrace greater transparency and demonstrate a genuine commitment to ethical and truthful messaging will rise to the top.

Stay tuned for the next article in our Sustainability Series looking at Regulation.

in-cosmetics Global, powered by KSM, returns from 16-18 April 2024 at the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles in Paris, France. For more information and to register to attend, visit here.

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