How To Find Facts In The Age Of Greenwash & Fake News

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The last 12 months have seen a surge in fake news stories. As we struggled to make sense of a pandemic, our social media streams came alive with all kinds of conspiracy theories, misinformation and downright lies. We heard about Covid symptoms being caused by 5G radiation, the benefits of injecting bleach and even the release of lions to control lockdowns in Russia. 

These are the extremes but, although many fake news stories are laughable, they often draw people in and perpetuate half-truths that can lead to widespread mistrust. In fact, an author of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science report: Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere, launched as a background paper to the Nobel Prize Summit this year, stated that “One of the biggest challenges now facing humanity is our inability to tell fact from fiction. This is undermining democracies, which in turn is limiting our ability to make long-term decisions needed to save the planet.”

For those of us communicating for change in the ethical and sustainable space, reliable facts are a tricky thing to hunt down. None of us wants to be involved in creating hyperbolic, scaremongering statistics or warped messages that can be misunderstood or misused. We want to promote those companies doing genuine good and educate consumers about small steps to make the world a better place. 

Emma Oddie from Ethical Consumer gives some tips on how to cut through the greenwash and the fake news and how to find reliable information that can lead to consumer action.

Fact Or Fake – You Decide…

Fact-checking, or even finding facts in the first place, can be tricky. Many of the big news outlets have been caught out publishing fake news in the past; how can you be sure to get this right? 

We use four quick checks to make sure that we’re reporting the truth in our messages:

  1. Is it original? If you find a fact or a quote, try to reach the original (primary) source. Many good statistics and quotes feature in multiple places, finding the original will make sure that you have the unabridged version, free from any skews or misinterpretation. Legitimate news outlets will always fully reference their sources. 
  2. Is it evidence-based? Try to avoid quoting opinions and stick to the facts. Can you find scientific papers or trusted research to back up your points? Of course, you can add your opinion on top of this research, your followers will be interested in how you feel about it.  
  3. Is it trusted? The people creating fake news stories aren’t above creating imaginary spokespeople or organisations. Do a bit of digging around the source of data or quotes to make sure that these are legitimate. 
  4. Is it timely? Our understanding of environmental issues and ethics are evolving as we learn and as change happens. Make sure your source information is up-to-date.

Five Quick Checks To Cut Through Greenwash 

Greenwash is the little sister to fake news. Subtler and wrapped up in shiny, feel-good packaging, it is a menace to the well-meaning ethical influencer or blogger. How many times have you been pitched a product on the merits of its sustainability, only to dig a little deeper and find that is marketed by a large company that also peddles products made with ingredients linked to deforestation or poor worker’s rights? 

In fact, Changing Markets’ recent Synthetics Anonymous report found that 59% of fashion brands’ sustainability claims were found to be unsubstantiated or misleading. H&M topped the report with 96% of their claims turning out to be false.  

So how can you cut through the lies and get to the truth, whether you’re thinking about endorsing a brand or writing a more general report?

  1. Dig deep – if you’re checking out product credentials, dig deeper than the product, take a good look at the companies behind the brand. Look at the wider product range, check out company sustainability and supply chain reports and take a critical look at the messages they are pushing. 
  2. Look for targets on impact reduction – no one expects companies to have it all sorted right away. We live in an imperfect world and it’s hard to work with an unbalanced system to deliver perfect products. Look for concrete targets rather than vague statements and clear commitment and progress towards those targets. Statements like “We try our best to be as green as possible” don’t cut it. Statements like Weleda’s “Our aim is to reduce our energy intensity (energy consumption divided by production volume) by 2.5 per cent every year” are measurable and progressive. 
  3. Have a chat – don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re thinking of endorsing a product, ask for evidence that the company claims are true. Dig around for information that might expose claims as false and don’t be afraid to confront organisations with this information if you find it. 
  4. Be critical – so, the company is pitching an organic cotton top, great news. But is this top just one garment in a sea of polyester items mass-produced in China? You might be willing to give some kudos to the company for taking a step in the right direction, but don’t be afraid to say this information in the context of the wider picture. Your followers will thank you for it. 
  5. Look for transparency – companies that are open and honest about their shortcomings, as well as their successes, are likely to be more ethical. Look for companies who open up about their sustainability and ethical goals and have nothing to hide. 

How Does Ethical Consumer Do It?

The Ethical Consumer ethical ratings are the result of 30 years of research into all manner of companies and their products and services. Our product guides compare groups of products and rank them according to five main categories: environment, human rights, worker rights, politics and product sustainability. Within these ratings, we have over 300 subcategories. 

We aim to go deeper than the product itself to the company and its ethics, after all that’s where the profits end up. Each company starts with a score of 14 and then we take marks off for criticisms in the relevant categories, a positive point can then be added for the company’s ethos, bringing the total to a mark out of 15. This forms the basis of the product score, with additional positive marks awarded for features like Fair Trade or organic products, bringing the total achievable product score to 20.

For each category, we provide background information and justification so that we are as transparent as possible around the reason for the scores. This way, consumers can see an open and honest appraisal of the products and companies that they choose to support. 

We use a wide range of primary and secondary sources and we also request information directly from the companies, e.g., policies and targets. We also try to incorporate as much published research as we can from trusted campaign groups, such as Oxfam and Friends of the Earth, as well as other news sources, directories and public records. 

By researching and recording information in this way, we hope to create a trusted source of unbiased information. A database that digs under greenwash and gets to the truth of a company and its operations.   

Find Out The Facts With Ethical Consumer

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You can find our most recent fashion guides with an in-depth look into ethical clothing and high street brands on the Ethical Consumer site. And we have many more reports besides ranking everything from food to beauty products and banks. 

If you are an ethical blogger or influencer, we would love to give you a free digital subscription to the magazine – simply get in touch with us at comms@ethicalconsumer.org and we’ll set you up.

We just ask that if you reference our product guides you don’t print individual scores (as this is subscriber-only content) and that you link back to us. Every backlink helps us to reach more consumers with our guides and ultimately helps them to make better decisions about the products they buy and the companies they support.  

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