How to Identify Greenwashing and How to Avoid It

Amanda Pharis -


We’ve all seen brands and organizations that claim a percentage of revenue or profit to a charity or purpose. Every day we are inundated with green icons and percentage totals touting resources saved or restored by your purchases of nearly any kind of product or material. We’re asked to not litter, with big companies begging the purchasing publics’ moral compass to guide them to recycling. Consumers are learning that recycling can feel like a complete racket - does my plastic bottle or cardboard box get recycled or not? It's not the consumers’ fault to feel confused about what to do with waste; after decades of weening the general public from reusable materials like glass bottles, companies are now having to educate consumers about how to dispose of the plastics and materials they hooked us on in the first place. 

The confusion isn’t leading to building trust in these brands; there is plenty of room in the retail market to make a real difference in how sustainably we can ship products. Small efforts and decisions early in the logistics process of your product can streamline how you communicate to your audience the difference between you and the big guys. 


Vague or generic declarations

Brands that include “biodegradable”, “environmentally friendly” or just a generic chasing-arrows recycling symbol with no further information are to be wary of. Like many products, shipping products can be made of recycled materials but not be recyclable itself.  

Look for direct messaging like “This product may look a little different! We’re aiming for 100% recycled material by 2023, this bottle is 75% recycled material”. Including a goal makes it actionable and provides a point of accountability for the brand. Adding messaging as simple as “curbside recyclable” instead of the simple icon can add a little bit more credibility to your brand as being a responsible material source. 


When speaking to reducing environmental footprints, “Easier said than done” applies fully. Unfortunately, many brands have been caught red handed doing exactly that. Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” snafu of 2015 caught the major automaker lying about emissions from their line of diesel vehicles, touted as exceeding emission standards off the line. It was exactly that - off the line as they had equipped their diesel cars with software that allowed them to pass (read: lie during) emissions test despite being terrible for the environment. VW had been caught lying, and stands accused of greenwashing their brand. It will take years to repair the PR damage created, though their marketing efforts are now focused on reaching younger audiences (environmentally minded, as well) who are looking to purchase their first family cars and are unfamiliar with the past news headlines. 

Biggest offender: The “Biodegradable” Lie

We have to face the fact that all materials have downsides. A product that breaks down in weeks instead of years will likely be less durable or fail during shipping. Cheaper alternatives to the most sustainable options are usually on the opposite side of the spectrum and are more harmful than helpful to end users.

Some materials sound nice, but may still have very real and negative consequences for our environment. Bioplastics, or more specifically PLA (polylactic acid) packaging, is either made from bio-based sources like plants or able to biodegrade in a home or industrial compost environment. These include PLA shipping mailers, compostable clear poly bags, cornstarch packing peanuts and Oxo-biodegradable plastics - all plastics with biodegradable additives. 

The cheapest bioplastic available in the market is PLA. It is made with industrial corn which depletes soil and adds toxins to our water systems. PLA production relies heavily on fossil fuels to manufacture. Since only 4% of Americans have access to industrial compost facilities in their area, PLA packaging is frequently incorrectly recycled (or wish-cycled) to a landfill - where it breaks down over time (years! decades!) to create methane pollution. Contrary, and despite often being labeled as completely biodegradable, PLA can take hundreds of years to degrade in an environment like a composter or a landfill. Just leaving PLA waste outside isn't likely to have any effect on its composition. So yes, it will break down, but much, much longer than more sustainable alternatives would. 


All organizations have values they want to represent their brand. Whether it is kindness, sustainability or healing, your brand wants to put good into the world. It can be easy to overstate or exaggerate claims of altruism or results to attract the audiences you want to work with or serve. Aspirational goals are great to include in your messaging, but ensure its understood that it is a goal and not yet achieved. Including your consumers in that goal is great for engagement and can add value to your brand and your users. Here are some valuable tips to avoid green- or purpose-washing your brand.

Actually do the things you say

If you’ve seen a brand or organization making a wild claim and thought “yeah, sure”, your gut was likely right. Claims based on some truth isn’t enough when you are an organization committed to sustainable change. If your brand is unable to commit to the initial goal, adjust your goal to one that can be reached and keep your audience informed. If the goalpost moves too frequently, your users will lose trust in the mission and your efforts. 

Once an achievable mission has been established, outline milestones and communicate those to your audience. As milestones are achieved, proudly demonstrate rewards and data through creditable means. If your brand has met a fundraiser goal, include the goal, how it was reached and include the receiving stakeholders as a receipt of achievement and transaction.

Give actionable messages

Just saying boxes are recyclable is one thing - but adding how or why creates more incentive and purpose. Include QR codes to facts about biodegradability (or even print the info!) and how your brand is making strides to reduce landfill intake of reusable material like cardboard and plastics.   

Show results and name names

Demonstrate to your base what results have been achieved through your efforts. A simple newsletter, shared badges and achievements among users, a powerful Instagram post - all are easy ways to show that your brand is making an impact. Name drop committed users and partner with other brands’ that align with your mission; adding more social proof creates more trust as outside stakeholders demonstrate reliability to your audience. 

Commit to change and education

Let your customers in on how they can contribute to making an effort. What commitment are they making when purchasing your product or service? We know when you purchase from CustomBoxes, that your brand is focused on clarity and sustainability. Shipping with a sustainable box is one way to say you’re committed to the environment. Providing next steps for your customer to recycle or reuse the box is a way to educate and engage your users with your own brand’s values and extend the commitment.  


We’re dedicated to doing the right thing. Our decisions are based on “but is it good for our customers? Is it good for the Earth?” Our hope is that our decision to responsibly source cardboard, ink and packaging helps our customers provide the best sustainable solution to their end users. If buying shipping boxes becomes one less thing for your brand to worry about, then we have succeeded. Our next step is to help your organization use your shipping box to boost our collective efforts. What can we do to inform and educate your customers about the steps your organization is taking to make the world a better place? 

When crafting your purpose-driven brand statement, ask these questions of your brand to see if your messaging avoids purpose-washing rhetoric. Here's how we answered these questions: 

Does CustomBoxes actually do the things we say? Yes - we want to be held accountable for when we fall short of our promises. 
Does CustomBoxes communicate with their audience? We certainly try! Including our customers in the effort means we can make much bigger changes even sooner. To not communicate with our customers would be a death knell - the lack of trust consumers feel towards the big material manufactures is not unfounded. Be upfront about where we are, but also communicate our plan to get to where we want to be. 
Does CustomBoxes give actionable messages? Each box we print includes clear, understandable graphics for recycling or reusing in hopes that our boxes live a second or third life. 
Does CustomBoxes show results? Our plan is to include users in the gains we see being made as a direct result of our collective efforts and how their organizations are also contributing. 
Does CustomBoxes commit to change and education? Our entire mission revolves around creating change in the custom boxes space. We want to get beyond wasteful practices of color ink or full bleed designs - change begins with innovation and bravery. Be bold, print in black ink and make an unsaturated statement about how sustainable your organization is.