What is the difference between circularity and greenwashing?

What's the difference between greenwashing and circularity?

“All natural.”

“Environmentally friendly.”

“Sustainably sourced.”

Finding words like these on packaging or marketing materials is all too familiar. But do these features make an actionable difference in the battle against catastrophic climate change? Unfortunately, the answer is typically, no.

Many companies are simply performing sustainability and choosing environmental aesthetics over environmental action. One example is a company that rolls out supposedly environmentally minded strawless coffee lids that actually contained more plastic than the original straw and lid design. Green branding strikes a chord that has begun to sound, well, superficial.


Across a range of industries, many companies are choosing to adopt the language of environmentalism. While “greenwashing” overuse isn’t a new problem—the term has been around since the ‘80s—it is an increasingly persistent issue today. Why now? Companies turn to greenwashing because it’s effective: consumers want the things they buy to reflect their environmental intentions. For environmentally conscious consumers, understanding the nuances of sustainability and greenwashing is becoming more important with each transaction.

Greenwashing “tells” to look out for

Greenwashing tries to disguise a number of “tells” customers should look out for. Some of these tells are easy to spot, but others can be more subtle. Identifying performative aspects of greenwashing is essential when determining which products to buy and which to leave on the shelves:


  • The product sounds vague — Producing truly sustainable things can be a challenging prospect. Companies that do so authentically are candid and consistent about their footprint. If a company can’t identify its purported environmental impact, it’s a sign that they aren’t actually making a meaningful difference
  • Surface-level language — Words like “all-natural,” “environmentally friendly,” “non-toxic,” “alternative,” and even “recyclable” and “sustainable” have their place, but they can be performative marketing buzzwords. If you purchase a product because of its alleged sustainability, make sure it’s coming from an accredited company that you trust. 
  • “Natural” aesthetics — Natural-looking packaging and aesthetics are great, so long as the product is actually sustainable. Sometimes products that look the most “green” or “recyclable” are anything but. Some completely non-sustainable products simply come in green packages!
  • Marketing claims that promise too much — Some companies make promises about their products that just don’t make sense. Check to see if the company you are buying from is consulting experts like scientists and health practitioners to back up their claims.
  • Only one or two aspects of the company is sustainably minded — This is perhaps the most common greenwashing tactic. To be truly sustainable, companies must account for the entire supply chain, from sourcing materials and manufacturing to packaging and recycling. Some companies misleadingly label their product “recyclable” when only specific materials are or claim their headquarters are “energy efficient” when their factories are not. Tricky, tricky. 


The common denominator in these greenwashing “tells” is that they all rely on appearing environmentally minded rather than taking meaningful steps towards a more sustainable supply chain.


Performance vs. Action in Sustainable Production

To a consumer, the ubiquity of greenwashing might be a sign that we’re moving in the right direction. It indicates that buyers are more than ready for truly green products. The onus lies on companies to follow through on their environmental promises. More often than not, the promises of greenwashing are more performative than they are representative of actual actionsThe key shift in combating climate change will be matching our environmental intentions with sustainable action. This will take the producer, the product, and the consumer coming to the table, together.

Circularity and Sustainability

We currently exist apart from the things we buy, but circularity can change that. Circularity is a simple concept: both manufacturers and consumers  need to become more conscious of the life cycles of the commodities we produce and buy. A product’s lifespan starts with sourcing materials. Then these materials are manufactured, packaged, sold, and (hopefully) recycled or reused.


True sustainability is efficient intervention and environmental intention at each access point in a product’s lifespan. That means raw materials should not only be sourced ethically, but should come from bio-based, recyclable sources; manufacturing plants, packaging, and shipping should be as energy efficient as possible; products should be reused or be fully recyclable when they are no longer functional. All products should be engineered for reuse and waste efficiency. Read more about circularityin the fashion and apparel industries here.


Conscious consumers understand the (sometimes) subtle differences between performance and action for sustainable products. When purchasing a product, ask yourself these questions:


  • Does it just look nice? This one is simple. Is the entire product geared towards an environmental aesthetic? Looks can be deceiving.
  • Does this claim make sense? Use your better judgment. Some marketing promises don’t make sense, even if followed by environmental jargon or fluffy language.
  • Is it simple to tell the difference? Once you look past the disguise of greenwashing, it should be clear if a product is sustainable: nothing left to vagueness or chance. A product should genuinely tell you if it’s sustainable. 
  • Is there action behind the words? Sustainability is where intention meets action. Products can “talk” all they want, but they need to do something about climate change. Environmentally minded companies should intervene in each step of the circularity loop. 


Moving towards a more environmentally-conscious global community means cutting out green performance. It’s important to stay educated about what we can do as a conscious consumer.


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