In 2013, researchers at the University of Gävle in Sweden conducted an experiment “for fun”. In it, students were given two cups of coffee: they were told one was “eco-friendly” and the other was not. Most said they preferred the taste of the eco-friendly one. The coffees were in fact identical. 

But the label didn’t just make drinkers think it tasted better. Half the participants were told they had preferred the non-eco-friendly option and those that had said they placed a high value on sustainability said they’d still pay more for the eco-friendly option – even though they didn’t like it as much.

That study showed not only the power of eco-labelling but also the “greenwashing potential”, says Mattias Holmgren, who led the study with his colleague Andreas Haga. 

Their study hoodwinked people into thinking one coffee was “greener” using a simple label – but does such greenwashing work in the real world? Yes, without question.

First, what is greenwash? It is “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, while the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition says that “when businesses use terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘green’ they are often meaningless”.

“Most greenwash is due to ignorance and/or sloppiness rather than malicious intent”

Ambiguity is a telltale sign. “The vaguer the claim you make is, the harder it is going to be for you to stand by that claim and to substantiate that what you’re saying is true,” explained Cecilia Parker Aranha, director of consumer protection enforcement at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), at a recent webinar run by Compare Ethics, which verifies sustainable brands.

The CMA recently started a project to clamp down on greenwashing. They had noted a quadrupling in the size of the ethical goods and services market to £41 billion. David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and Covid-19 have created more hunger than ever for sustainable products but this is also feeding greenwash. People want green products and they’ll pay a premium for them, so it’s all too tempting for companies to slap empty “green” credentials on their products...

Read the full article in issue 47 of Caffeine Magazine