According to McKinsey and Company’s 2021 Global Sentiment Survey, 51 percent of South Africans are willing to pay more for ‘purpose-driven’ brands. This includes businesses with a lower carbon footprint, better labour practices and supply chain transparency. As good as this news is for the planet, it leaves a lot of room for deceptive marketing.

Greenwashing is when companies publish misleading information about how sustainable their practices and products really are. They might do it intentionally (as a marketing ploy) or unintentionally by using buzzwords they don’t truly understand. In this article, the EPR Waste Association of South Africa (eWASA) sheds more light on how to recognise greenwashing as a consumer and avoid it as a business.

Unsubstantiated claims
In the age of misinformation, people are getting too comfortable with false news. Companies that say their products are ‘eco-friendly’ might never be questioned because there must be truth in it somewhere, right? The truth is that many of these claims are completely unfounded.
For example, a clothing brand may say it only works with factories that treat workers well. However, it never provides any evidence of fair compensation and working conditions. It becomes impossible to find any information about the supply chain. The company will never give its customers anything more than marketing to fuel their purchasing decisions.

Brand owners might vaguely mention what they’re doing about pollution on their website but won’t be willing to provide a sustainability report. A truly green business would have real data to back up its claims. It would be completely transparent about its practices because it has nothing to hide.

Vague marketing terms
The sustainability movement was built on buzzwords like zero-waste and carbon-neutral. These words make products seem trendy and green, swaying consumers toward them no matter the price. Brands want to use this type of language on their labels, sometimes a little too much. While a company can’t actually make false claims, it can use general terms that don’t mean much in the legal world.
It might say a product is ‘pure and natural’, for example, to imply that it’s better for the planet. In reality, harvesting something from nature doesn’t automatically make it ecofriendly. This misleading marketing tactic extends to images. Printing grassy fields on food labels, creating logos with leaves in them or even just using the colour green for no obvious reason could be a red flag. Remember, just because something sounds green, doesn’t mean it is.

Jumping on green trends
“If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” – a question many parents use to teach children the value of independent thought. Now, we can use this lesson to sniff out greenwashing. In 2015, a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose went viral. Suddenly, plastic straws were out, and paper ones were in. Once people stopped liking paper straws, restaurants brought in bioplastics – straws made from plant-based materials like corn starch. This made the customers happy because the straws had the word ‘compostable’ on the packaging. What they didn’t know is that we don’t have commercial composting facilities in South Africa.

A study in the South African Journal of Science found that many businesses in SA only jumped on the straw trend to meet consumer expectations. This finding highlights a classic case of demand and supply. Uninformed consumers who demand ‘sustainable’ products without doing their research may inadvertently help businesses participate in greenwashing.

Third-party eco-certifications in South Africa
Discerning between brands that care about the environment and those that don’t can be a challenging task. Good greenwashing is difficult to spot. Looking for endorsements from trusted third-party certification bodies is a good place to start. Below are some of the most prevalent eco-certification bodies in South Africa.

Forest Stewardship Council
The FSC promotes responsible forestry worldwide. Having this logo on your paper products or packaging proves that it comes from wood grown in sustainable forests that prevent deforestation and protect biodiversity.

Ecocert provides environmental certifications for many classes of products worldwide. In South Africa, you may see this logo on certified organic food labels. It proves that food comes from farms that do not use chemical pesticides or treat animals unfairly.

The Rainforest Alliance
Often found on chocolate, coffee and other products from tropical regions, this label proves that the product does not contribute to social injustice or environmental destruction.

The Better Cotton Initiative
The BCI inspects and certifies cotton farms that pay workers fairly, protect soil quality and use water wisely. Seeing this logo on a clothing label means the fabric comes from a sustainable farm.

How EPR combats greenwashing
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is about making producers more sensitive to the environmental effects their products have. South African EPR laws require businesses to reduce their packaging footprints through reducing, recycling and choosing recycled materials. Reporting is a big part of EPR, leaving no room for greenwashing. Running an EPR-compliant business gives companies detailed insights into how green their products are. It makes transparency an everyday practice, helping brands build trust with their suppliers, partners and customers.

For more information about EPR and how to implement it in your business, visit: