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What is Greenwashing: How To Spot & Avoid It

In the past few decades, more and more brands have started to care about the environment. The development of new technology and innovations has made it easier for companies to be environmentally conscious. However, some companies are using these seemingly environmentally-friendly marketing tactics to increase their sales and profits by “greenwashing”.

Lets set the record straight– it’s very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security with marketing tactics. It’s rarely easy or quick to substantiate eco-friendly claims, so in many cases it’s comforting to simply pick a brand that appears to be the most environmentally conscious.

But as we’ll find out, it’s common for labels and claims to not tell the whole truth. Here, we’ll explain what greenwashing is, and show you how to spot if a company is trying to pull the wool over your eyes!

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company makes misleading claims that it is eco-friendly, in reality it spends more time and money creating a false impression of its sustainability efforts.

Greenwashing is similar to whitewashing, where a person or company deliberately tries to cover up unpleasant or illegal facts about something. Also known as “Green PR” or “Green Sheen”, greenwashing is mainly to attract eco-conscious shoppers by making misleading claims that the business’s products are ‘sustainable’ or environmentally-friendly.

Essentially, the purpose of greenwashing is to improve the public perception of a brand.

examples of greenwashing logos
You’ve probably seen these generic badges hundreds of times on product packaging and adverts, and it’s most likely a greenwashing tactic.

Why is greenwashing dangerous?

In today’s society, people want to feel like they’re making a difference by buying products that align with their values. When you buy from a brand who’s only doing this for profit and not out of genuine concern for the environment, you’re actually taking away any chance of an eco-friendly product coming into reality because no one will buy it!

History of greenwashing

Greenwashing as a term was first used by environmental activist Jay Westerveld in an essay in 1986. His essay highlighted that hotels encouraged guests to reuse towels after use instead of asking them to be washed every time and used conserving Earth’s resources as a reason. However, Westerveld concluded that this reminder was to help the hotel save money on washing linen, and coined it greenwashing.

As the green movement began to pick up pace in the 1960’s, companies began to identify this as a way to market their products and improve public sentiment.

Chevron’s Infamous greenwashing campaign

Perhaps the most blatant and first infamous example of greenwashing is Chevron’s “People Do” campaign in 1985. The ads depicted wildlife being saved from environmental pollution by Chevron, with the aim giving the public the perception that they care about the environment.

These ads ran at the same time as the company was facing hundreds of violations of pollution laws, which saw Chevron shell out millions of dollars to the EPA. According to Joshua Karliner in his book The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization Chevron would have spent millions of dollars promoting the “People Do” campaign, and in comparison the butterfly preserve they built only cost it $5,000 per year to run.

Unfortunately, polls conducted by Chevron two years after the “People Do” campaign showed that the messaging worked: people trusted Chevron to protect the environment and the company’s sales had increased 10%.

Types of greenwashing

Research has identified two main types of greenwashing: Claim greenwashing and Executional greenwashing. The research paper also further breaks down greenwashing into firm level and product/service level.

Firm level greenwashing refers to misleading consumers that the company as a whole is eco-conscious: an example of this is where companies promote sustainability commitments or achievements that are legally required.

Product/service level greenwashing is more common and refers to when a company implies that their product or service falsely benefits the environment.

Claim greenwashing

Claim greenwashing is where a company makes a direct claim about the ecological benefit of choosing them. For example, their product has an environmentally-friendly disposal method, the manufacturing uses non-toxic substances, or their organisation partners with a popular environmental cause.

Executional greenwashing

Executional greenwashing is a more subtle form of marketing: this is where a company intentionally uses suggestive imagery and branding to make them appear more aligned with sustainability and the environment. Examples include using nature-evoking elements like trees, animals and using the colour green.

Identifying Greenwashing

When you’re in the market for a new product or service, it can be hard to know if the company you are considering is truly green. Environmental marketing firm TerraChoice (now acquired by UL) created a checklist for identifying and describing greenwashing, called the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”. We also believe these seven points will help you identify companies making misleading environmental claims.

These are the 7 things that you should look for to spot greenwashing:

Hidden Trade Offs

When a company claims a product or service is eco-friendly by disregarding other important environmental factors. For example, items that have been made using recycled materials may have been produced using energy-intensive manufacturing processes and then transported around the world to be sold.

No Proof

An eco-friendly claim that cannot be substantiated by certification, third-party endorsement or reliable information available upon request.

Vagueness

A claim that is vague or ambiguous that doesn’t make any specific mention about how that product or service is environmentally beneficial.

Uses Fake Labels

A product that uses fake trust badges and labels to give the impression that the product has endorsement. Always look out for trusted logos.

Irrelevant Facts

Where a company may make an objectively true statement, but is not useful for helping you make a decision for a product that it is better for the environment. For example, saying that a product doesn’t contain a banned ingredient is a moot point.

Lesser of Two Evils

Where a product claims to be good eco-friendly alternative, but is actually attempting to distract a consumer to the negative environmental impacts of the category of products as a whole.

False Statements

Where a company makes a completely false statement about the products environmental impact or eco-friendlyness.

Tips for spotting greenwashing

Products usually add their green credentials and claims to their packaging, if you cannot find it there you should check for a ‘sustainability’ page or the FAQs on their website.

A good indicator of whether a company actually cares about their environmental impact is if their packaging is compostable or recyclable. If it isn’t then they are could using greenwashing tactics.

how to spot greenwashing tactics

Another sign is when a company has an eco-friendly campaign but doesn’t provide any supporting evidence. For example, one brand may advertise that they use eco-friendly practices but have no evidence to back up their claim. Another indicator is when only some of the products being sold are green. If a company sells both eco-friendly and non-eco-friendly products, then it may be greenwashing.

It’s also important to read about the company’s sustainability goals and mission statement. This will help you determine whether or not their practices align with their claims. Finally, evaluate how much of their business comes from sustainable practices and products. If they don’t rely on eco-friendly products and materials for at least 50% of their revenue, then this might be a warning sign that they’re only trying to cash in on the “green trend” without actually making strides towards becoming more environmentally friendly or sustainable.

People often get tricked by greenwashing because it is hard to discern which brands are genuinely eco-friendly. However, there are a few telltale signs of greenwashing that you can look out for:

  • The company makes a big deal about being environmentally conscious, but their products use plastic or other harmful chemicals.
  • They rely heavily on buzzwords such as “eco-friendly”, “green”, or “sustainable” without providing any real evidence.
  • Their marketing campaign focuses on the environment and not their actual product.
  • They produce high-quality packaging with nice fonts and photos of nature while neglecting to mention what is inside the package.
  • The company has been caught violating environmental laws in the past.

How to avoid being guilty of greenwashing

To avoid participating in greenwashing, brands need to be transparent with their customers by providing relevant information on how their products are eco-friendly. They should also provide detailed information on where their items come from and what processes the products go through before they get to consumers – all this will help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing products.

There are a range of association and accreditations that quantifiably measure corporate environmental responsibility such as the B Corp Certification. Endorsement from trusted third-parties will help to establish trust with consumers, and ensure that a company is following ethical corporate values.

Does Greenwashing work?

Unfortunately there is evidence that greenwashing works: while companies are showing that corporate social responsibility can be beneficial for companies and society, there is a growing number of companies that are only using the trend to benefit their bottom line.

Greenwashing has been shown to be an effective marketing tactic since the 1980’s, as evidenced by Chevron’s poll after their “People Do” campaign.

A poll shows that 66% of consumers are willing to pay for more products that are eco-friendly, and a separate study also shows that consumers are more likely to shop at companies that create a positive environmental brand image. This is perhaps why so many companies are attempting to use green marketing to their advantage, despite making little positive environmental impact.

On the other hand, the prevalence of greenwashing and real corporate social responsibility has caused skepticism about green marketing tactics amongst consumers. A study has shown that consumers are finding it difficult to differentiate between genuine green efforts and misleading marketing tactics.

What this shows is that companies should be transparent about their commitment to sustainability. It’s best to admit where your company could be doing better environmentally, and what you can aim towards. Greenwashing is a dark art, and consumers are beginning to see through it.