What is Greenwashing

What is Greenwashing?

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? 

What is the definition of 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.

What are Examples of Greenwashing?

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. 

Greenwashing and corporate greed

8 lane highway for cars
Photo by ETA+ on Unsplash

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. 

Why is Greenwashing a Problem?

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

7 Sins of Greenwashing

  • The sin of the hidden trade-off: This is when a suggestive ‘green’ product is based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. An example is shampoo. A shampoo is not necessarily environmentally preferable because it contains organic material, as shown on the bottle. Rather, because it contains chemical ingredients and other contents not disclosed, consumers may find it harmful to the environment and user.
  • The sin of no proof: It’s an environmental claim that is not provable by a reliable third-party certification. The sin of no proof is common with facial tissues or toilet tissue products that demand percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence. 
  • The sin of vagueness: This is a part that is barely defined or defined too broadly, that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural is an example of this sin. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all-natural, but toxic. In certain green marketing practices; “Green”, “Environmentally friendly”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Eco-conscious” are also ambiguous because, without the details, they are meaningless.
  • The sin of worshipping false labels: It misleads customers into thinking that it has been through a legitimate green certification process. This greenwashing example exploits a false suggestion or certification-like fake label. 
  • The sin of irrelevance: This is a greenwashing ploy that may be true but is unnecessary in the context of whichever product they are selling. Products have to be CFC-free because, in most places, the law bans them. 
  • The sin of lesser of two evils: When it comes down to product comparison, the company’s offerings may be better. But this doesn’t mean that they are overall a good choice for the consumer. This is how a company might use greenwashed marketing to distract consumers from the downsides of products. For example, organic cigarettes and the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.
  • The sin of fibbing: These are environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples are products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered. Scanlan researched the oil gas industry (OGI) communication on hydraulic fracking and proposed new sins related to the conceptualization of greenwashing.
  • The sin of false hopes: This is a tactic that reinforces false hope. The OGI hydraulic fracking method has an enormous negative impact on the environment; critics argue that ecological modernization is not possible and believing otherwise is harmful to the surroundings.
  • The sin of fear-mongering: These are claims that fabricate insecurity related to not “buying in” on an organization’s practice, like OGI hydraulic fracking. This can be explained as “shifting the scale of fear and seizing opportunities from instability and uncertainty borne out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global war on terror, and volatile fuel costs, alter the public perception of risk”.
  • The sin of broken promises: These are claims that promise that fracking will lift poor, rural communities with riches from mineral rights and economic development, but when evidence shows the contrary, communities are left with irreversible impacts.
  • The sin of injustice: According to Scanlan, the environmental communication examined in his research does not speak directly to communities most affected by fracking; it focuses on a segment of the population that benefits from fracking but does not suffer its consequences.
  • The sin of hazardous consequences: Greenwashing hides the reality of inequality and distracts the public from the dangers of risk of other experience. Scanlan includes another sin about the harm done from hazardous consequences.
  • The sin of profits over people and the environment: The potentially greatest greenwashing sin of all is to profit over people and the environment, and that is the essence of greenwashing.

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

Compostable eco-cups - greenwashing or not?
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Is Greenwashing illegal?

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)

Jennifer is a content writer with an educational background in Public Relations and Advertising. From her desk in Lagos, Nigeria, she helps businesses around the world reach and connect with their audiences.
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
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