Since the early 1980s, we can note the increased awareness of companies greenwashing in their PR strategies to falsely 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 first used the term greenwashing in 1986 to describe a Fijian Resort's 'reuse towel' campaign. Its use became widespread 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.
There are numerous examples of greenwashing (also sometimes referred to as “green sheen”). This includes a company preempting product claims, propaganda, rebranding, complex information about a product, perception of legitimacy, and consumption figures.
Companies in various industries such as food, fashion, and 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 and sustainable practices, ultimately misleading consumers.
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 and sustainability claims that suggest environmental benefits and friendliness.
Manufacturers have thrived on products' environmental friendliness assertion. And it can invariably help a company 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. While at the same time appealing to changing consumer needs and behaviors. Yet, greenwashing appears to be a growing trend in a race to differentiate and stay current. Still, the effectiveness of this technique does not last long, and 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 it destroys the buyer's trust and the ecosystem in the long run.
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 tests to claim their cars were less polluting than they actually were. They’d fitted their vehicles with a device to prevent the proper measurement of the polluting cost of their cars and therefore mislead consumers as to the carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants their vehicles generated.
The result was to raise awareness of the size and scale of greenwashing strategies in use. While simultaneously causing a great deal of damage to the trust in sound practices across the business community.
Elsewhere, energy 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 while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
Furthermore, claims of renewable energy use often go unqualified, while end-of-life recycling or compostability may prove possible only in specific and unlikely conditions. Meanwhile, corporate social responsibility can point to charitable or societal giving, or a reduction in greenhouse gases and carbon footprint across manufacturing, yet only form the smallest fraction of a company's activities yet by overly emphasized.
Meanwhile, we’re told natural gas burns cleaner with little inference to sustainability and has a lesser environmental impact. 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 about the impacts. As such, we can view these as misleading environmental claims.
All these make it difficult for a truly responsible company to stand their green initiatives apart as trusted. However, numerous third-party certifications have come to the fore to help resolve the trust issue. These include the likes of the forest stewardship council accrediting sustainable paper production and GOTS certifying sustainable fabrics.
Despite growing awareness of climate and sustainability, money still regularly beats product quality. Many companies shun sustainability, impact, and genuinely environmentally beneficial production in favor of money, profit, and growth despite the costs. Just stop and think about how often you find yourself exposed to potential examples of false claims akin to greenwash.
Greenwashing is a problem for industries, consumers, and the planet at large. Its popularity over time has increased consumers' skepticism 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 positively affects customers’ perceptions. In turn, it prompts more favorable attitudes toward the brand than attitudes encouraged 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 Seven Greenwashing Sins1.
This is when a suggestive ‘green’ product is based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other critical environmental issues. An example is shampoo. As shown on the bottle, shampoo is not necessarily environmentally-preferable because it contains organic material. Instead, because it contains chemical ingredients and other contents not disclosed, consumers may find it harmful to the environment and user.
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.
This is a part that is barely defined or defined too broadly, and 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,” "Green Packaging," and “Eco-conscious” is also ambiguous because, without the details, they are meaningless.
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.
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. For example, organic cigarettes and fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles. This is how a company might use greenwashed marketing to distract consumers from the downsides of products.
These are totally fabricated claims that are simply false. The most common examples are products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.
It misleads customers into thinking it has been through a legitimate green certification process. This greenwashing example exploits a false suggestion or certification-like fake label that might infer the use of natural resources, carbon neutrality, and so on without true accreditation.
Scanlan researched the oil gas industry (OGI) communication on hydraulic fracking and proposed new sins related to the conceptualization of greenwashing.
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 believe otherwise is harmful to the surroundings.
These claims 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.”
These claims promise that fracking will lift poor, rural communities with riches from mineral rights and economic development. Still, communities are left with irreversible impacts when evidence shows the contrary.
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.
Greenwashing hides the reality of inequality and distracts the public from the dangers of risk of other experiences. Scanlan includes another sin about the harm done from hazardous consequences.
The potentially greatest greenwashing sin of all is to profit over people and the environment, which 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 due to 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 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 Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC was established in 1914 with the passage of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which President Wildrow Wilson signed.
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 the modern marketplace in October 2010. And guidance on how businesses can avoid misleading customers when marketing the 'greenness' of their products.
While in the UK, the government introduced the green claims code in 2021 to provide guidance to avoid unintentional greenwashing. The code includes information related to climate change, carbon offsets, business practices, and mitigation efforts.
Other countries are also taking proactive steps to tackle greenwashing claims through various 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, sustainable brands, and sustainable business practices that have caused more harm to the environment or people than we can measure.
Companies greenwash products to 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. The system needs to change to select trusted companies with legitimate green claims as consumers.
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.
Dahl R. (2010). Green washing: Do you know what you're buying?. Environmental health perspectives, 118(6), A246–A252. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a246
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)
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.