Greenwashing: This is how you recognize fakes

A clear message from Maren Ingrid Kropfeld, who researches green consumption. She knows how we learn to distinguish real from would-be sustainability.

BRIGITTE BE GREEN: It feels like every brand is screaming: "I'm green!" How credible is it all?

Maren Ingrid Kropfeld: Many companies are currently discovering that things cannot go on like this. At first glance, however, it is often difficult for consumers to see whether a company is really serious about its sustainable advertising poster.

Which industries are currently switching their advertising to eco?

A lot is happening in the field of nutrition and fortunately also in the clothing industry. The criticism of fast fashion has grown immensely in recent years and the pressure is increasing.

There you can now hear sentences like: "100 percent climate-neutral by 2040." Aren't these goals that you push far too far from yourself?

Still, that's a good step! It is important to create awareness of change in the company. Even if everything had to happen faster. To find solutions, a lot has to be tried out. This requires pioneers who test radical ideas and show that it works. Politicians are also likely to put more pressure on the market.

Is it more like small companies doing pioneering work or big ones?

If we look at the certified Benefit Corporations, i.e. companies with the highest social and ecological standards, we actually find smaller companies here. Listed companies often have a harder time.


Small companies can usually act more flexibly and faster. They often already have a corporate culture that allows for more radical forward thinking and is based on ecological and social goals from the outset. If large companies also want to change credibly, they would have to make their carbon footprints and working methods much more transparent. Ideally even legally binding. But the lobby, on the other hand, is huge. Who would like to have a red CO2 traffic light on their own products? That's why a lot of things are done voluntarily. Products are only labeled as positive, not negative, which is precisely what leaves room for greenwashing.

What exactly does the term mean?

It is the attempt by companies to present themselves as green as possible through PR measures.

What are typical fig leaves?

With very vague statements like "natural" one should be skeptical, it can be anything. Then things are often advertised that are regulated by law anyway – "CFC-free" for example. CFC is a chemical compound that attacks the ozone layer and has been banned in Germany since 1991. Advertising is also often misleading when it comes to promoting diesel vehicles as "economical and environmentally friendly". Or when mineral water is touted as "vegan". I mean what else is it supposed to be? With regard to the speed of change, one should also see whether the brand only fulfills legal requirements or does more. If so: great! If not: greenwashing!

A lot of research is passed on to consumers. How do I specifically recognize greenwashing?

There are apps like CodeCheck or Buycott that scan the barcode to check ingredients or materials. The government initiative lists trustworthy seals. The overall impression of the company also counts. Dealing with employees, the use of renewable energies or vegetarian food in the canteen can be a first indicator of this. Does the company have a holistic approach? How much organic cotton does she really use – ten or 100 percent? Does the brand know which factory their clothes are sewn in? Where does the cotton come from? Who grows them?

Should I buy in small shops or from the big ones, to show: Yes, we want more green products from you?

The most important thing is to question your own purchase decision. And then to look. If the drugstore is on your doorstep, it makes sense to buy the natural cosmetic products there. If the unpackaged shop is closer, support it! The corona crisis has shown that local shops need support. At the same time, the greats have incredible power and influence over the entire industry. As consumers, we can send this signal. Companies must see that a greener orientation is worthwhile.

Are they really reacting to it?

Let's take the example of shampoo: this is a saturated market with a large number of suppliers and brands. As a company, I have to think about how I can differentiate myself from the competition and tap into new target groups, such as the Fridays for Future generation. If shampoo sells better without microplastics, that's good for the environment – the intention is of secondary importance. In the next step, however, we should reflect critically: If the company is only interested in simply selling more new things, it is going in the wrong direction again.

But that's exactly what happens: in the end, they want to attract a new target group with green shampoos, but not take the conventional ones off the shelf.

Some industries, fast fashion for example, can hardly get any greener with the current business model. How can an industry whose "success" is based on very low margins, questionable production conditions and 52 fashion cycles per year be sustainable? The subject of meat consumption is similar: Of course I can buy organic meat, but animal husbandry is generally very harmful to the environment. No matter how well I do it, it's always better not to eat meat. When it comes to selling as much as possible, quickly and often, the company can never be sustainable.

So if a big company goes green, can I basically only believe it if it is also prepared to make losses for the climate?

Of course, there is also a positive effect on the environment if the products sold are environmentally and socially sustainable. But yes, from a certain point on, every company has to reflect how much growth their business model can account for – and at some point also respect ecological upper limits.

Our expert

Maren Ingrid Kropfeld (29) is a business economist and researches in the field of ecological economics at the University of Oldenburg. Above all, it is driven by the question: How do we, together with the economy, manage to live more frugally, but at the same time more satisfied?

Would you like to read more about the topic and exchange ideas with other women? Then take a look in the "General Forum" of the BRIGITTE Community past!

In BE GREEN, BRIGITTE's new sustainability magazine, you can read the exclusive interview with Greenfluencer Marie Nasemann: "I don't want to fuel the fashion madness anymore."