Why 'bio' and 'green' don't mean what you think

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A bag made from cassava starch (Credit: Getty Images)
The language brands use to promote their environmental sustainability can be misleading and unverifiable. How do you spot a buzzword from a real claim?

Green. Bio. Natural. Clean. Organic. Eco-friendly. Sustainable.

These are words we are confronted with constantly: on billboards, online and on TV. They are pervasive in advertising and appear on the products we see on supermarket shelves. But what do they really mean and how do companies use them to convince environmentally conscious consumers to buy their products?

Rising public enthusiasm for climate action has led to a surge in corporate climate claims, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to distinguish between good environmental practices and misleading statements, a practice now referred to as "greenwashing".

The common denominator for all greenwashing is that it exploits a grey zone – it's misleading, but it can be true, according to Peter Seele, a professor in corporate social responsibility and business ethics at the Università della Svizzera italiana in Switzerland.

"That's the tricky part of greenwashing and why companies get away with it," he says.


In Coming Clean, BBC Future uncovers the tricks and misdirections that we should all look out for when we see claims about sustainability.

In a previous article in the series, Isabelle Gerretsen reported on the adverts that were banned for misleading climate claims. But not all misdirections are so clear. Sometimes companies use environmental buzzwords which, while not innaccurate, give a misleading or unverifiable sense of sustainability. In this article, we explain why this language is so convicing.

Greenwashing is rampant in online marketing, according to a study by the European Union and national consumer protection authorities. It found many environmental claims on companies' websites are exaggerated, false and potentially illegal. In an analysis of online traders last year, the EU Commission assessed 344 "seemingly dubious claims" and found that in 42% of cases national authorities had reason to believe the claim was false, deceptive or could potentially qualify as unfair commercial practices under EU rules.

Vague language is a common telltale sign of greenwashing, says Seele. Brands will use vague buzzwords such as "green", "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" to make their business seem environmentally conscious, but without substantiation, they "don't mean much in themselves", he says. "There's no ultimate definition of what sustainability is. It's an empty word."

Another trend is companies linking sustainability to other issues that consumers care about, such as personal health. "The term 'healthy' can very easily be attached to 'planet', 'people' and 'lifestyle'," says Sarah Duncan, a sustainability consultant and author of the Ethical Business Book. The food and cosmetics industry use words like "clean", "pure" and "natural" to portray their products as being both good for the planet and people's health, she says.

The word "green" has positive connotations that other colours do not (Credit: Getty Images)

The word "green" has positive connotations that other colours do not (Credit: Getty Images)

Greenwashing is pervasive in the fashion industry, too. According to a report by the campaign group Changing Markets Foundation, 59% of environmental claims made by European fashion brands, including Zara and H&M, are unsubstantiated or misleading to consumers and flouted guidelines set by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The claims were evaluated against official CMA guidelines on climate claims and independently verified by the Changing Markets Foundation. The CMA’s guidelines include criteria such as that claims must reflect the whole life cycle of the brand, product, business or service and durability and disposability information must be clearly explained and labeled.

Zara and H&M were approached for comment. A spokesperson for Zara says "[the report] has noted that Zara was the most comprehensive at substantiating and verifying its sustainability claims, and that it clearly communicates material characteristics across its main collections". At time of publication, H&M had not replied.

Brands are eager to highlight the sustainability of the materials in their clothes, and will frequently use words such as "organic", "natural", "recyclable" or "recycled", says Sigal Segev, associate professor of advertising at Florida International University.

"People tend to confuse organic with environmentally friendly," she says. "Maybe they don't use pesticides when they grow the cotton, but what happens next? There are so many phases in the product life cycle – what happens after you harvest the cotton and process it?"

"Organic cotton is highly water intensive and has led to huge amounts of degradation," she says. Organic cotton yields might be lower than conventional cotton yields, meaning more water and land is needed per kilogram of cotton produced.

Organic cotton is highly water intensive and can be damaging if grown in drought-prone areas of the world (Credit: Getty Images)

Organic cotton is highly water intensive and can be damaging if grown in drought-prone areas of the world (Credit: Getty Images)

Generally, cotton is grown in drought-stressed areas of the world, so whether it is organic or not its production puts pressure on a fragile environment. It takes roughly 1kg of conventional cotton lint to make one pair of jeans, but this requires around 8,500 litres (1,870 gallons) of water on average, according to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Orsola de Castro, co-founder and global creative director of non-profit Fashion Revolution which campaigns for reform of the fashion industry, says environmental buzzwords distract from many fashion brands' business models, which are fueled by rapid consumption.

"Would the world be a better place if we produced the same amount of materials, but it was all organic?" she says. "Probably not. Anything that is borne out of excess will have an excessive carbon footprint."

"Are materials still natural if they are drenched in chemicals? They may be natural at the start of the process, but not at the very end," adds de Castro. "Polyester, whether it's recycled or not, still sheds millions of microfibres."

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that textiles produce 35% of the microplastics entering the world's oceans, in the form of synthetic microfibres. A single clothes wash could release more than 700,000 microfibres into wastewater, according to a study by researchers at the University of Plymouth.

Why are consumers susceptible to greenwashing?

Brands use positive language that appeals to consumers' social responsibility and environmental consciousness, says Dirk Holtbrügge, chair of international management at Friedrich-Alexander-University in Germany.

"We tend to think in opposites. Green is always positive, grey is always negative," he says. For example, we associate the colour green with "joy", "pleasure" and "contentment". "Green has a positive impact. We assume companies [promoting green products] are doing something positive," adds Holtbrügge.

The "bio" label on food products sold in Europe means the product was grown following EU regulations on organic farming (Credit: Getty Images)

The "bio" label on food products sold in Europe means the product was grown following EU regulations on organic farming (Credit: Getty Images)

Likewise the prefix "bio" – for example, in words like "biodegradable" or "bio-based" elicits positive emotions in consumers, and can help to change feelings towards terms that are more ambiguous like "organic". Similar patterns have been observed with the prefix "eco".

In the image above, tomatoes sold in Germany are labelled with an EU-regulated "Bio" sticker, which means they are grown following guidelines on organic farming, but other uses of the word "bio" might not follow such strict rules.

Sustainability is becoming a priority for many consumers and brands are tapping into that.

What should you look out for when checking a company's claims?

Sustainability experts offer this advice:

  • Be wary of vague buzzwords
  • Check whether a claim is substantiated
  • Check certificates and whether these have been awarded by an independent organisation
  • Use online transparency tools, such as the Ethical Consumer
  • Check company ownership 

A Unilever market research survey of 20,000 people in five countries found that a third of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. And 21% of people said they would actively choose brands if they highlighted their sustainability credentials more clearly on their packaging and in their marketing, the survey found.

"Why are greenwashing words so convincing? Maybe because we want to be easily convinced and to feel like we're making the right purchasing decision," says Duncan. "In some respects, marketing [teams] are grasping for words that consumers want to hear."

"Green is the new black in many ways," says Segev. "It's become a status symbol. Being an environmentally conscious consumer adds to people's sense of self."

A study by Baylor University in Texas analysed the motivations for buying a hybrid car of consumers aged 60 and older. They found that their satisfaction was influenced by social values, such as prestige and pride, as well as value and price.

In a survey of 7,500 adults around the world, 44% said they did not trust sustainability claims

"The findings suggest that elderly consumers are concerned about how they appear to others when driving a hybrid car," the researchers said. "They believe that driving a hybrid car builds a positive self-image of the people who drive them."

Greenwashing claims also tap into consumers' sense of guilt. "The guilt is kicking in," says Segev. "People are thinking 'this is the least I can do, not only for myself, but also for future generations'."

It can be challenging to check the source of clothes made with mixed fibres (Credit: Getty Images)

It can be challenging to check the source of clothes made with mixed fibres (Credit: Getty Images)

"These claims make us feel better about our overconsumption, our consumerism," says Duncan. "But the reality is that we should all be buying less."

Then there's the fact that most consumers are not in a position to fact-check these claims and look into the details. "We have to rely on the claims made by brands because we don't have the time, the resources or the expertise to check and verify them," says Holtbrügge.

In a survey of 7,500 adults around the world by the Capgemini Research Institute, almost half believed that they did not have the necessary information to verify the sustainability claims on products, and 44% said they did not trust these claims.

The same language is often used in legitimate and misleading climate claims, making it very difficult for the consumer to distinguish between the two, says Segev.

She discovered this when she carried out an experiment for a 2020 study. Together with other researchers, Segev selected an advert for storage freezer bags and created two versions: one which complied with the US Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides and featured substantiated, clear claims, and the other which featured the same claims, such as "manufactured with 25% less plastic", but without substantiation.

Participants were unable to draw a distinction between the two and rated the misleading advert as less deceptive than the legitimate version. "It was only when we gave them guidelines on how to spot greenwashing, that they could detect the difference," says Segev.

Seele says consumers have a responsibility to call out greenwashing. "The less people speak up, the more likely we will have even more greenwashing," he says.

But given all these pitfalls, how can consumers avoid greenwashing?

Be wary of vague claims that aren't backed up or green packaging and labels, which don't provide any further information, says Duncan. Consumers can also use websites such as the Ethical Consumer to find out more about a brand's sustainability record. "It goes behind the scenes in every area and is a good way to get to grips with products," she says.

Some consumers find it difficult to know which claims to trust (Credit: Getty Images)

Some consumers find it difficult to know which claims to trust (Credit: Getty Images)

There are also transparency tools for specific industries, such as the Higg Index, launched by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which assesses fashion companies' sustainability record throughout the supply chain.

"We are putting the data in the hands of consumers," says Amina Razvi, executive of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. "They can click on a product claim [to check] the substantiation."

Environmental certificates, awarded by third parties, are another tool available to consumers looking to fact-check green claims and understand more about the products they are buying.

Concerned about allegations of greenwashing, many companies are now turning to independent organisations, such as the Global Ecolabelling Network and Climate Neutral, to legitimise their climate claims.

But labels can be confusing as many companies and industries have also developed their own certificates and benchmarks. Cosmetics giant L'Oreal, for example, gives every product an A-E ranking, based on its carbon and water footprint, as well as the packaging used through its lifecycle.

Seele says this is a form of "self regulation" and that it has its limits. "Certificates can also be part of greenwashing. Some are reliable and some are not," he says.

A report from the Changing Markets Foundation published in 2022 looked at 10 of the largest third-party certification schemes in the UK and scored them on how clear they were about how their certificates were measured (on factors like transparency and independence). Five of the 10 schemes were found to not clearly address 50% or more of their factors, meaning it is difficult to independently verify those schemes certificates.

"The average consumer cannot really tell whether an independent organisation has inspected this product and verified it or not," says Holtbrügge.

"I always look out for sensationalism," says de Castro. "Sustainable solutions are often quiet."

An earlier version of this article included Burberry among the brands that were analysed to produce the 59% statistic in the CMF report. While they are named in the report, their claims were not analysed to produce this statistic. We have corrected the piece accordingly.


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