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Greenwashing: the great deception

Sustainability has become a huge buzzword in recent years. Consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable products, and companies are delivering.

However, when it comes to being green, things aren’t always as they seem. Many companies are adopting the image of caring about the environment, with no genuine interest in being eco-friendly. And others are pretending to be sustainable while actively harming the environment. 

This phenomenon is known as corporate greenwashing and it is becoming increasingly prevalent and problematic. In this blog post, we explore what greenwashing is, what its consequences are, and how we can prevent it from happening.

What is corporate greenwashing?

Corporate greenwashing is when a company makes impressive claims about their sustainability to distract from their unsustainable practices. 

The term was coined in 1986 by environmental activist, Jay Westerveld, in a critical essay inspired by the irony of the ‘save the towel’ movement in hotels. He noted that while hotels claim to be protecting the planet by only washing towels if they are left on the floor, they tend to waste resources in many different ways. And importantly, not washing as many towels actually benefits the hotels by saving them money.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, greenwashing was mostly used to describe companies making outrageous claims and intentionally misleading consumers. Today, it has a much broader definition, including less deliberate examples resulting from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability really is.

The’ Six Sins of Greenwashing’

In 2007, Terra Choice Marketing published the Six Sins of Greenwashing, which classifies the different ways that companies participate in greenwashing, from outright lying through to making claims with no scientific proof.

They found that 99% of the consumer products surveyed were guilty of one of the following sins:

  1. ‘Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off’

A claim that a product is ‘green’ based on certain environmental attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. An example of this would be a printer that promotes energy efficiency, without paying any attention to hazardous material content, indoor air quality, or compatibility with recycled paper/remanufactured toner cartridges. 

  1. ‘Sin of No Proof’

A claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. For example, products that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no sort of evidence or certification.

  1. ‘Sin of Vagueness’

A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer. A good example of this is the term ‘chemical-free’, which is completely meaningless as nothing is free of chemicals: water, plants, animals and humans are made of chemicals, as are all of our products.

  1. ‘Sin of Irrelevance’

A claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. A common example of this is products describing themselves as being free from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), when these have been legally banned for almost 30 years.

  1. ‘Sin of Lesser of Two Evils’

A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. This could involve something like promoting ‘organic cigarettes’: these might be a more responsible choice for smokers, but consumers should be discouraged from smoking in the first place.

  1. ‘Sin of Fibbing’

A claim that is simply false. Luckily, this is starting to happen less and less, but an example would be a dishwasher detergent that claims to be packaged in ‘100% recycled paper’, despite the container being plastic.

By misdirecting and disillusioning well-intentioned consumers, greenwashing can have a detrimental impact on the environment and businesses alike.

What are the consequences of greenwashing?

As more and more consumers look to buy sustainable products, making eco-friendly claims has become a powerful marketing tool for companies. Misleading branding is convincing a growing number of consumers to unintentionally harm the environment.

Increasing consumer scepticism

Consumers who are making an effort to use green products and reduce their impact on the environment are likely to be discouraged if they are misled by companies. Once they start to lose their trust in services and products, they may become disillusioned and start to feel that trying to make a difference is simply pointless.

Harming the environment

One of the most concerning consequences is that companies and consumers can get so caught up in the politics of greenwashing, that they forget about the actual environment that is being harmed. We are living at a time where protecting our planet needs to be an urgent priority, and greenwashing stands directly in the way of this.

Diminishing consumer power and wasting consumers’ money

No consumer likes to be taken advantage of. Those who actually care about being environmentally friendly tend to be willing to spend more money on products and services: in a recent poll we carried out, 81% of respondents said they would pay more for climate-friendly products. . The last thing they want is to spend money with a company that is supposedly helping the environment, when in actual fact it is just misleading marketing and a waste of money.

Harming company reputation and sales

When it is revealed that a company has been involved in greenwashing, the damage to its reputation can be catastrophic. Fear of being accused of greenwashing can also hinder well-intentioned companies from promoting sustainable practices. 

How can you spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing techniques are not always easy to spot, so we have picked some key things to watch out for to avoid buying greenwashed products.

Vague buzzwords

Companies are increasingly using words like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘all-natural’, even to describe products like processed foods and harsh chemical cleaning products. The issue is that there are no regulations for what a ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ product is, so these phrases are essentially meaningless. 

Watch out for these words and try to do your own research to find out if a company is truly sustainable. It is also a good idea to look out for approved seals like USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project, Fair Trade Certified, and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Idyllic imagery

The packaging of greenwashed products often use idyllic imagery to subconsciously imply that they are natural or beneficial to wildlife. For example, food companies will display images of farms to evoke pastoral charm and focus your attention on the natural elements of the food, rather than the harsh chemicals. 

As with buzzwords, to avoid falling for these tactics make sure you do your research and actually read the label.

Hidden parent companies

As we’ve already mentioned, more and more consumers are looking to make environmentally friendly choices. To benefit from this trend, large companies create smaller brands and market them using vague buzzwords and idyllic imagery. 

Parent companies are not always listed on product packaging so you might need to research the product to find out if it is backed by a large conglomerate. 

Lack of transparency

Most sustainable brands are proud of their values and will dedicate an entire section of their website to explaining their practices and standards.  Those involved in greenwashing will typically avoid discussing the provenance of their products, the wages they pay their workers and their environmental impact, or rely on vague, seemingly positive words. 

You should also watch out for companies with hundreds or even thousands of options, as truly sustainable brands tend to focus on perfecting a smaller range of products.

How can companies avoid greenwashing?

Now that we have looked at it from the consumer point of view, we thought we would share some tips to help companies avoid greenwashing.

Do your research 

Do some research to discover what consumers expect, and how consistent your products are with these expectations. It is also important to take a good look at your entire business chain and establish if any of your operations contradict your green claims.

Be honest and transparent

As with most things in life, honesty is always the best policy. It is much better to acknowledge any areas of your product or business that are not yet green and commit to work on it, rather than pretending you are perfect. It is also a good idea to make it easy for your customers to understand and check your practices and standards.

Get feedback

If in doubt, get a second opinion. Talk to your staff, suppliers, customers, NGOs and the community, and see what they think of your green marketing techniques. 

It’s not all bad

It is clear that in today’s world, green credentials are key to staying competitive, and companies are starting to realise that greenwashing just doesn’t cut it with conscious consumers. 

Greenwashing is happening less and less, and companies are increasingly establishing great environmental initiatives to reduce their impact and protect the planet.

Sustainability is not just a fad, it is here to stay, and we all have a role to play in making more environmentally friendly choices. 

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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