What is Greenwashing?

This blog was co-authored with Nataly Perez Manrique

Climate change is one of the most important and pressing issues facing humanity around the globe. No matter where you live, you’ll experience climate change and its environmental and health impacts. These include more extreme weather like hurricanes, flooding, and drought. Or more persistent and ever-present effects like rising sea levels and warming oceans. Climate change is on everybody’s mind. As it rightly should be. But we can’t talk about climate change without first talking about greenwashing and its impacts.

Greenwashing is an increasingly common public relations tactic companies use. They do this to look more “green” or environmentally-friendly than they actually are. Companies will often advertise their green intentions and make claims about decreasing their environmental impact. In reality, they might not be as committed to sustainability as they say. Their environmental claims may mislead consumers, oversell the environmental benefit, or do something else entirely.

This “green sheen” is also known as greenwashing. It’s the bad side of business. While “green marketing” may be good in theory, overblowing your environmental marketing claims is serious business. Learn how you can spot potential greenwashing and what you can do about it.

Where does the term “greenwashing” come from?

Whitewashing is the practice of covering up or concealing unpleasant facts about something. The term’s usage dates all the way back to England in 1591. Whitewash was a cheap white paint or coating of chalked lime to give almost any surface a “clean” appearance.

Corporate greenwashing is the cousin to whitewashing. It’s another dishonest practice used to deceive consumers. When companies perform acts of greenwashing, they’re making themselves and their products seem more environment-friendly than they really are. Improving consumer perception can make the company more money. In some cases, greenwashing means making false claims about environmentally-friendly benefits a company has to offer.

a white fence splashed with green paint, a model of greenwashing

How can we identify greenwashing?

Of course we can identify greenwashing on our own, but it can be tricky! Lucky for us, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tries to protect consumers from this deceit. The FTC outlines different ways companies and manufacturers try to pull a fast one and greenwash its products. These are the legal definitions and advice from the FTC, but companies are very creative when it comes to greenwashing.

Anytime you see a product advertised as benefiting the environment, ask yourself some simple questions. Are the environmental claims ambiguous? Does it seem too good to be true? If the answer is “yes,” then that product could likely be greenwashed.

There are many ways to identify whether or not a company is greenwashing. Below are a few of the simpler ways to identify greenwashing in advertising.

Is the Product Certified By An Independent Third Party?

The label on a product might boast that it’s “eco-friendly” or “all-natural.” Unless the proper authorities endorse these claims, they’re probably meaningless. When shopping, look for certification labels to back up the product’s claims.

When products are certified, it proves that their claims are more likely to be true and documented. These labels help you as the consumer make responsible choices. Learn a little bit more about these labels here.

Even certifications can be corporate greenwash, though, so watch out. There are many certifications that are funded in large part by companies who want certification to greenwash. The best way to tease out reliable third-party certification is to look for a second opinion. What pops up when you do a little bit of internet research?

Like many other environmental groups, we’ve covered greenwashing in packaging before. By doing some research, you can pick the most environmentally-sound companies. Check out these articles for more information:

Look for Greenwashing Codewords & Environmental Claims

Do you remember how labels can make all sorts of unsubstantiated and misleading environmental claims? There’s even a set of words that advertisers commonly use that signal there’s greenwashing going on.

Words like eco-friendly, non-toxic, pure, raw, all natural, healthy, and organic mean nothing unless they’re accompanied by certification. Advertisers often use these terms to make products seem environmentally-responsible. All of these terms are just green marketing. They don’t tell you the true environmental impact.

Is that Packaging Too Much?

Environmentally-conscious companies always package their products responsibly. This usually means using as few materials as possible and the bare minimum of plastic. See a supposedly green product in bulky packaging with lots of plastic and cardboard? Chances are you’ve spotted greenwashing.

One big lie being exposed recently is about plastic recycling. According to Greenpeace, most plastic simply can’t be recycled into new materials. Any green marketing about plastic packaging is likely a baseless environmental marketing claim. Greenwashing, pure and simple.

Does the company have Corporate Social Responsibility claims?

Just because a company has a Sustainability Office doesn’t mean their green claims have any validity. Many of the big polluters have huge offices dedicated to their sustainability claims. They have a green sheen from head to toe.

While intentional sustainability efforts deserve praise, not all sustainability claims are equal. For example, “going solar” in the factory doesn’t cancel out the oil used to make single-use plastic straws. There may be positive environmental impacts from reducing coal-based electricity, but it stops there.

Carbon offsets are a great example of green advertising. Companies claim that they “plant a tree” for every purchase. Or they may say they purchase offsets proportional to their sales. But not all carbon offsets programs are equally rigorous. Unfortunately, misleading claims are very common in the carbon offset industry. Read more about carbon offsets:

Still Can’t Tell?

Have you gone through the checklist and still aren’t sure what to do? Go to the company’s website and investigate their claims for yourself. If their claims are true, you should be able to find third-party certification or discussion backing them up. In contrast, if environmental organizations like Greenpeace, NRDC, or Dogwood Alliance are calling them out, you should probably choose a more eco-friendly company.

Is Greenwashing Always Intentional?

The effects of greenwashing are always harmful. When people believe the decisions they’re making are environmentally-friendly but aren’t, then everybody loses. When consumers know the true environmental benefits and costs of a practice or product, they’re more likely to make better choices.

However, not every instance of greenwashing is a deliberate lie. Sometimes, companies just make mistakes or inadvertently make themselves or their products appear greener than they are. A great example of this is actually plastic packaging. Many companies have purchased recycled materials or plastic that’s marked as recyclable for their sustainable practices. But until Greenpeace did their watchdog report, no one knew the harm.

Accidental Greenwashing

Brands and companies are in the business of selling themselves and their products. As environmental awareness has become more mainstream over the past decades, brands want to appear like they’re doing their part.

An increasing number of consumers want to make environmentally responsible choices. People want to purchase environmentally-friendly and sustainable goods, so brands emphasize these qualities (no matter how small) about themselves more. Issues arise when emphasis and advertising begin to mislead consumers with false claims. Greenwashing isn’t always intentional, but its impacts are always serious.

What about green marketing?

In a few words, green marketing is the promotion of products or services that are eco-friendly. To get this label, companies would implement the following steps:

  • Adopt sustainable and fair business practices (e.g. pay their employees fairly)
  • Reduce expenses (e.g. either on transportation, packaging, or resources)
  • Modification of their production lines (e.g. avoid overproduction)
  • Use sustainable materials (e.g. use organic or recycled instead of synthetic)
  • Modify their charity plan (e.g. donate to environmental organizations)
  • Add more green claims to their packaging and marketing materials
  • Pursue “B-Corp” or other green company certification

Some of these changes provide real environmental benefits. But not everything relates directly to an eco-friendly product. Unfortunately, consumers must evaluate each and every environmental claim that they see. It’s the only way combat shady corporate environmentalism.

Final thoughts

It’s essential for businesses to be transparent about their environmental claims. If a company can’t prove an eco-friendly product or green claim, it shouldn’t use that language in its marketing. Consumers must also remain vigilant and research any potential greenwashing they come across. Stopping greenwashing is important because companies should only make promises they can keep. And consumers deserve the truth when making purchasing decisions. Companies who are honest and up-front with their customers will benefit from better customer relationships and trust over time. They’ll also be helping protect our environment.

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