What is greenwashing in packaging?
Images of nature symbols and the almost inflationary use of green color on packaging suggest freshness, naturalness and love of the environment to consumers. Added to this are claims such as “Packaging made from recyclable materials” or “Made from 89% renewable raw materials and 100% recyclable,” which can be read more and more frequently today on beverage cartons, shower gel and shampoo bottles, and many other product packaging.
But do claims of this kind actually correspond to the truth? Is the packaging really as green as it is portrayed to be? To be honest: no. It’s often the case that companies go to great lengths to sell their products as more natural and sustainable than they actually are. Why? Quite simply: because they expect greater success from it. Greenwashing is ubiquitous and a serious problem, which we address in this article.
Consumers are paying more and more attention to environmental friendliness
Consumers are now paying more attention to buying environmentally friendly packaged products. And brands seem to want to meet this changed consumer demand – but the emphasis is on “seem”. Because what appears to be sustainable in its brownish cardboard look is usually so-called composite packaging with plastics and/or aluminum. In other cases, it is indeed real paper, but only on the outside, while the actual packaging appears on the inside – made of plastic or metal.
Brands are therefore deliberately misleading consumers. They are taking advantage of customers’ new environmental awareness to boost their sales figures.
About the “wrapper” packaging
The cardboard-wrapped plastic cup has become an old acquaintance on supermarket shelves. The same is true of most toothpastes, which are still wrapped in plastic per se, but have been given additional paper packaging. There are countless other examples. To illustrate, here’s one more from the food industry: tofu is packaged as usual in its plastic wrap, but for some time now it has still been wearing a cardboard dress to visually deceive consumers – it’s supposed to make the product look more environmentally friendly.
This approach is absurd in several respects: on the cardboard cover, the manufacturers point out that their product is now “greener” than before or compared to the products of their competitors. But the thinking consumer quickly realizes that the cardboard sleeve is basically nothing but unnecessary additional waste. It consumes additional resources and is disposed of before you even come into contact with the real product. This makes claims such as “More sustainable now” completely implausible and makes waste separation all the more time-consuming for the consumer.
The result: especially with the “cleverly” cardboard-covered plastic coffee cups, so far very few consumers bother to separate the components and throw them into the appropriate garbage cans. Many only see the cardboard sleeve and put the cup in its entirety in the paper waste after consumption. It’s not that there are no instructions on the respective packaging for correct disposal – but hardly any consumers pay attention to them. And the end of the unfortunate chain is the problem that waste sorting systems currently only know A or B. The cup is then disposed of in the paper waste bin:
If the plastic cup in the cardboard sleeve stands upright on the fast-moving conveyor belt, the infrared sensor assigns it to plastic waste; if the container lies on its side, it passes as paper. No matter which “sector” the cup goes into: During recycling, only the detected part is recovered; the unrecognized part ends up in the residual waste and is incinerated. This makes optimal recycling impossible. Although people are already tinkering with the development of intelligent sorting systems that do not simply send leftover materials to residual waste, such projects are still in their infancy.
Composite packaging is even worse
You can always do worse, even when it comes to greenwashing: new beverage cartons, for example of milk and milk substitute products, apple or orange juice, are commonly composite packagings consisting of two to five different layers of cardboard, plastic and/or aluminum. From the outside, these packagings look environmentally friendly – with an appealing cardboard look and decorated with symbols that exude naturalness and sustainability. And then the crowning misdirection are claims about saving huge amounts of plastic or even about being highly recyclable.
It is true that fiber-based composites with plastic use less plastic. It is also true that most materials can be separated from each other with the help of solvent liquids. Nevertheless, most composite packaging made of paper and plastic is more poorly recyclable than not. Multilayered composites have to spend minutes in the release agent to at least partially separate from each other. But recycling is always severely limited as soon as a plastic coating is added.
What’s more, composite packaging that consumers throw in the paper trash out of ignorance or convenience, so that it ends up in the environment, decomposes over time and becomes microplastic, which in turn endangers nature – and with it humans and animals.
Conclusion: Honesty is the best policy – and helps the environment so much more
Why companies engage in greenwashing is clear: To maximize their own profits, it seems worthwhile at first glance to do sustainable things, but not to be sustainable. It entices customers to buy and costs comparatively little money. But apart from the fact that intentionally deceiving consumers is simply to be rejected, the shot can also quickly backfire: The modern consumer is increasingly informed, so that he can easily expose green deceptive maneuvers as such. The term ‘sustainable’ can then only be used in connection with the damaged reputation of the brand in question.
Greenwashing in packaging deceives consumers, prevents good recycling, burdens the environment – and ultimately also the image of the responsible company. As an agency for packaging design, we advise every company to be honest and authentic, because this is the only way to build a long-term successful brand. If for some reason it is not possible to use truly sustainable packaging, then you are doing consumers, the environment and also yourself a favor by foregoing the use of pointless cardboard jackets or composites for a more environmentally friendly look.