Since the early 1980s, the term greenwashing has been commonly used by companies in their PR strategies to market their products or brands as “green” or eco-friendly. Reading this, you might ask, what is greenwashing?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of greenwashing is premeditated with plans
“to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
Jay Westerveld, in 1986 first used the term greenwashing to describe a Fijian Resort's 'reuse towel' campaign. Its use became popular for companies to infer that they are environmentally conscious and their products are eco-friendly.
Companies use greenwashing to make buyers believe that they are doing more to protect the environment than in reality. This means that companies use the term 'green' deceptively.
In this article, we will take a look at examples of greenwashing, why it could be a problem, its legality, and more.
Examples of greenwashing are numerous. This includes a company preempting product claims, propaganda, rebranding, complex information about a product, perception of legitimacy, and consumption figures among others.
Companies in various industries such as food, fashion or travel, use marketing techniques including social media to lure customers. Less scrupulous manufacturers exploit the mounting purchaser demand for environmentally friendly goods and services to falsely claim eco-friendly benefits.
The increasing consumer demand for more sustainable and environmentally friendly household products encourages corporations and institutions to change their aims, products, and policies. Thereby, making them use favorable terms that suggest environmental friendliness.
Manufacturers have thrived on products' environmental friendliness assertion. And it can invariably help a company to gain more customers, drive sales, and eventually increase stock prices.
Positioning a brand or product fit for greenwash involves a lot of communication activities to attract customers. Yet, greenwashing appears to be a growing trend in a race to differentiate and stay current. While at the same time appealing to changing consumer needs and behaviors. Still, the effectiveness of this technique does not last long, it needs other strategies to keep it in the system.
Greenwashing helps hide the unpleasant facts about the true nature of the company’s product or service; but in the long run, destroys the trust of the buyer and the ecosystem.
Volkswagon arguably earned notoriety with perhaps the most notable example of greenwashing in recent times and made worldwide news.
The Environmental Protection Agency found the car giant guilty of cheating emissions testing to claim their cars less polluting than they actually were. They’d fitted their cars with a device to prevent the true measurement of the polluting cost of their vehicles. The result was to raise awareness of the size and scale of greenwashing strategies in use. While at the same time caused a great deal of damage to the trust in sound practices across the business community.
Elsewhere, oil companies continue to drill, mine and burn polluting fuels. And, you’ll no doubt recognize their effort to proclaim green-ification. Whereas they are in fact making progress, the true extent of their green efforts versus their polluting ones rarely gets told with any transparency.
Meanwhile, we’re told natural gas burns cleaner with little inference to sustainability. Healthier waters and food products work hard to come across as better for us and the planet. Yet, they’re often housed in plastic, full of sugar, and consume energy across the supply chain with little transparency as to the impacts.
Despite growing awareness of climate and sustainability, money still regularly beats product quality. Despite the costs, many companies shun sustainability and impact in favor of money, profit, and growth. Just stop and think about how often you find yourself exposed to potential examples of greenwash.
Greenwashing is a problem for industries, consumers, and the planet at large. Its popularity over time has increased the skepticism of consumers and made complex their buying motive.
Greenwashing has rendered some research defaults. Especially recent research indicates that the mere presence of a nature-evoking picture in advertising results in a positive effect on customers’ perceptions. In turn, it prompts more favorable attitudes toward the brand than attitudes prompted by the same advertising without the imagery of nature. This is because there has been little difference in product claims by manufacturers, and “green” product rights as such have become more confusing and doubtable.
In a TerraChoice study, researchers investigated claims of 4,744 “green” products sold in the U.S. and Canada. They found that more than 95% of products are guilty of at least one of what they call 7 greenwashing Sins1.
Beyond these sins, Jane Hottman argues greenwashing:
'[is] what happens when a hopeful public eager to behave responsibly about the atmosphere is presented with ‘evidence' that makes an industry seem friendly to the environment
As such, the problems humans face today as a result of greenwashing are encouraged by the lack of information and energy. Or our inclination as customers to investigate the eco-friendly legitimacy of the products we buy. As a result, we end up buying for the immediate gratification and knowledge of our positive contribution to the issue alone2.
There are numerous regulatory bodies protecting customers in the world, including the US’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC was established in 1914 with the passage of the Federal Trade Commission Act which was signed by President Wildrow Wilson.
Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § grants the FTC power to investigate and prevent deceptive practices. The statute declares that
"unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful'.
Unfairness and deception towards customers represent two distinct areas of FTC enforcement and authority. The FTC also has authority over unfair methods of competition between businesses3.
Moreover, these have been supported by the various lawsuits against greenwashers in recent times. In one case the California Attorney General filed against a water bottle company that claimed their bottles were 'biodegradable' and 'recyclable.' The lawsuit (Kamala D. Harris v. Enso Plastics, LLC, Aquamantra, Inc., Balance Water Company LLC) alleged a violation of the California Business and Professions Code that prohibits untruthful deceptive or misleading environmental marketing claims and of the Federal Trade Commission’s 'Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.'
Simply, the plastic bottles 'will not biodegrade as claimed.'
In the brief, the Attorney General argues that the
“Guides specify that the use of the claim 'biodegradable' should be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire product will decompose in a reasonably short period, a protocol that the bottler has not followed”.
The FTC issued proposed revisions to its “Green Guides” to bring them into the 21st Century way of responding to the realities of current business practices and modern marketplace in October 2010. And guidance on how businesses can avoid misleading customers when marketing the 'greenness' of their products.
Other countries are also taking proactive steps to tackle greenwashing claims through a variety of regulatory, legislative, and enforcement efforts. We can interpret many of these practices, in general, to render greenwashing and deceptive strategies illegal.
Today greenwashing remains a popular strategy to exploit customers' demand for eco-friendly household products that have caused more harm to the environment or people than we can measure.
Greenwashed products might convey the idea that they're more natural, wholesome, or free of chemicals than competing brands. Yet, we’re wise to question their claim to avoid greenwashing becoming our reason for purchase.
We all should consider this as a call towards an enabling environment by ensuring true eco-friendly products and services. To select trusted companies with legitimate green claims as consumers the system needs to change.
We’ll need to work together as active customers and partner with regulatory bodies against greenwashing. Above all, companies should avoid green marketing for marketing’s sake and take responsibility for building real best business practices for a lesser environmental impact on our planet.
Terrachoice (2010). A report on environmental claims made in the North American consumer market. The Sins of Greenwashing Home and Family Edition 2010
Green: Your Place in the New Energy Revolution (on Amazon) by Jane and Michael Hoffman, 2008
FTC Policy Statement on Unfairness. Appended to International Harvester Co., 104 F.T.C. 949, 1070 (1984). See 15 U.S.C. § 45(n)