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February 24, 2024

Eco-anxiety: don’t succumb to green impulse purchases

Heatwaves, floods, forest fires and pollution – even close to home, the signs of global warming are on the increase and seem impossible to ignore. These upheavals are also given broad media coverage, which helps create an anxiety-inducing environment that has an impact on our mental health. This is called eco-anxiety and it can result in irrational buying behaviour. We’re here to explain this for you.

What to remember

    • Eco-anxiety is gaining ground. 59% of young people are worried by climate change and experience the following negative emotions: sadness, anxiety, anger, helplessness, distress and guilt.
    • It is important to distinguish between environmental awareness and environmental panic. There is a place for emotions, but they must not gain the upper hand over reason.
    • Unscrupulous brands are exploiting eco-anxiety to incite us to purchase products that claim to be green when this is not really the case.
    • Greenwashing is a marketing technique used by organisations to promote an environmental image that does not correspond to reality. There are a number of ways to learn how to recognise greenwashing, such as checking out the European website devoted to this subject.

Eco-anxiety (also referred to as climate anxiety) is distress in connection with climate change. It appears when our awareness of the need to take action on climate change mutates into fear or even distress in the face of climate catastrophe that we believe to be imminent.

It is well-known that it is a bad idea to base decisions on fear, and eco-anxiety is no exception to this rule. In addition to its impact on our physical and mental well-being, eco-anxiety makes us more vulnerable to manipulative marketing that aims to make us purchase products that purport to be green but have no real positive impact on the climate.

Eco-anxiety mostly affects the young

Eco-anxiety is much more widespread than you may think and is constantly gaining ground. This chronic fear of natural catastrophe is not restricted to those who have suffered directly from the impact of climate change. It is increasingly present amongst individuals who are influenced by the constant and alarming media coverage of the issue, feel affected by climate change, and worried by the uncertain future it causes. One group in particular is more subject to this negative emotion: young people.

One group in particular is more subject to this negative emotion: young people.

A study was recently carried out in 2021 among 10,000 young people (aged from 16 to 25 years old) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the US). Published in the journal, The Lancet Planetary Health, it revealed that 59% of young people are worried about climate change and experience the following negative emotions in response to the climate crisis: sadness, anxiety, anger, helplessness, distress and guilt.

Whilst eco-anxiety is understandable when faced with the reality of global warming, it remains to be seen whether it can be helpful in motivating appropriate pro-environmental behaviour. Researchers are divided on this issue. They note that those who are sensitive to, or even worried by, climate change may be pushed into taking action, but that exaggerated eco-anxiety has a paralysing effect.

In concrete terms, when faced with a problem that completely overwhelms them, some people feel that their actions will have a derisory impact on the future of the planet and see no use changing any aspect of their behaviour. Others want to take action but do not really know how, and fall into the trap of being guided purely by their emotions.

Strong emotions and environmental awareness

It is important to distinguish between environmental awareness and environmental panic. Too often, unscrupulous brands exploit this confusion to take advantage of eco-anxiety to boost sales of their products and services. It is always a bad idea to base decisions on emotions if they stop us thinking rationally – this applies to both the environment and money.

It is important to distinguish between environmental awareness and environmental panic.

Most of us – rightly – believe that we can combat our climate anxiety by protecting the planet in our day-to-day actions. And that of course means via our purchases. Close to half of European consumers say that they consider environmental messaging associated with products that they are considering purchasing. At the same time, they admit that it can often be a bit confusing. And this is where certain brands exploit your good intentions, by inciting you to purchase products that claim to be green when this is not really the case.

This trend for companies to exaggerate their environmental (or social) progress or the sustainability of their products is called greenwashing. It is key to recognise this, in order to counter its influence, which is particularly strong among young people. Young people tend to want to take more action to protect the environment and are very present on social media, which makes them the perfect prey for brands practising greenwashing.

This technique works because greenwashing appeals directly to our emotions. These brands address our eco-anxiety in order to push us into immediate action, bypassing any rational verification of the arguments put forward. However, you need the rational part of your brain to take control if you are to untangle what is true from what is false.

Recognising greenwashing

Greenwashing is a marketing technique used by organisations to promote an environmental image that does not correspond to the reality of their practices. This is clearly a type of misleading advertising.

Greenwashing is a marketing technique used by organisations to promote an environmental image that does not correspond to the reality of their practices.

Such fraudulent techniques are exploited by players in sectors such as agro-food, fashion, cosmetics, cleaning products, electronics and transport. And this list is far from exhaustive. The issue anything but anecdotal – research by the European Commission in 2020 showed that 53.3% of green claims examined in the EU were vague, misleading or unfounded. Still worse, 40% of claims were unsubstantiated.

Aware of the very harmful nature of this practice, on 22 March 2023 the European Commission published a proposal for a Green Claims Directive. According to European criteria, greenwashing includes practices such as:

    • displaying a sustainability label which is not based on a certification scheme or not established by public authorities;
    • making a generic environmental claim for which the trader is not able to demonstrate recognised excellent environmental performance relevant to the claim;
    • making an environmental claim about the entire product when it concerns only a certain aspect of the product;
    • presenting requirements imposed by law on all products in the relevant product category on the Union market as a distinctive feature of the trader’s offer.
    • etc.

Greenwashing may take several forms. Some brands use greenwashing in their marketing campaigns with messages such as “T-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles”, “CO2 compensated delivery”, “packaging made of 30% recycled plastic” or “ocean-friendly sunscreen”. More simply, greenwashing can often be found on the packaging of a product: excessive use of the colour green to emphasise the natural product traits, pictures of natural landscapes, highlighting elements not used in the product such as palm oil, etc.

Lastly, a brand may claim certification under non-existent labels such as “100% natural fibres” or use “green” terminology that invokes compassion or suggests well-being such as “carefully designed with sourced ingredients”.

How to spot greenwashing

There are a number of ways to learn how to recognise greenwashing – here are a few of them.

    • Visit the European website devoted to this issue. It is full of tips and important information on how to avoid being misled in your decisions.
    • If the brand you are considering cites a label that you are unfamiliar with, look for it on this website.
    • Be wary of packaging that is too green, don’t be deceived by appearances, and systematically check information relating to products and brands, in particular, by checking the opinions of other consumers.
    • Learn to automatically check the list of ingredients to ensure that these match the promises made.
    • Be wary of words such as “responsible”, “ethical” or “environmental” which are completely overused and no longer mean anything.
    • Look for figures and concrete facts to support claims of recycling and carbon offsetting. If a brand has a coherent approach, you should have no trouble finding clear information on this topic.
    • Always ask yourself if you really need to buy this green product that is presented as innovative. Buying a product, even if it is green, qualifies as consumption. If it isn’t an essential purchase, avoiding consumption is, itself, a positive gesture for the climate!

Do you want to help safeguard the environment by being careful about what you buy? Well done! But be sure to keep a cool head. Of course it would be wrong to demonise all brands, but it is also important to be able to identify those that are trying to exploit your eco-anxiety.