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What Is Greenwashing?

image for gpointstudio / Getty Images
gpointstudio / Getty Images

You've probably heard of whitewashing at least once in the corporate world. This term is defined as the glossing over or covering up of scandalous information through a biased presentation of facts. But greenwashing isn't nearly as well known.

Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact. It is a deceitful advertising gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.

Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term "greenwashing" in 1986 in a critical essay inspired by the irony of the "save the towel" movement in hotels. The idea emerged in a period when most consumers received their news primarily from television, radio and print media, so they didn't have the luxury of fact-checking in the way we do today.

Companies that have engaged in greenwashing on a wide scale have made headlines over the years. In the mid-1980s, for example, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads to broadcast its environmental dedication. But while the now-infamous "The People Do" campaign ran, Chevron was actively violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

Chevron was far from the only corporation making outrageous claims, unfortunately. In 1991, chemical company DuPont announced its double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals prancing in chorus to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It turned out the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. that year.

Greenwashing has changed over the last 20 years, but it's certainly still around. As the world increasingly embraces the pursuit of greener practices, corporate actors face an influx of litigation for misleading environmental claims.

In February 2017, Walmart paid $1 million to settle greenwashing claims that alleged the nation's largest retailer sold plastics misleadingly touted as environmentally responsible. California state law bans the sale of plastics labeled as "compostable" or "biodegradable," as environmental officials have determined such claims are misleading without disclaimers about how quickly the product will biodegrade in landfill. 

Even the water industry tries to overrepresent its greenness. How many plastic bottles have you seen with colorful images of rugged mountains, pristine lakes and flourishing wildlife printed on their labels?

"The core theme has stayed the same," said Philip Beere, vice president of marketing at Sightline Payments. "The No. 1 violation is embellishing the benefit of the product or service."

Beere said he believes greenwashing is rarely caused by malicious plots to deceive, more often being the result of overenthusiasm. It's easy to see why marketers are enthusiastic: According to Nielsen's Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, and that figure jumps to 73% among millennials.

With the belief that consumer demand for sustainability is the frontier of our transition to a greener, fairer and smarter global economy, Futerra's 2015 Selling Sustainability Report outlines 10 basic brand marketing tactics to avoid.

  • Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., "eco-friendly")
  • Green products vs. dirty company: For example, efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  • Suggestive pictures: Images that give an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
  • Irrelevant claims: Emphasis on one tiny green attribute when everything else is anti-green
  • "Best-in-class" boasts: Declaration that you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
  • Designations that are just not credible: For instance, the "greening" of a dangerous product to make it seem safe ("eco-friendly" cigarettes, anyone?)
  • Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  • Imaginary friends: A label that looks like a third-party endorsement … except it's made up
  • No proof: A claim that could be right but has no evidence
  • Outright lies: Totally fabricated claims or data

There are plenty of wonderful companies telling their environmental stories to the world, and even some that aren't but should be. The incidence of "pure greenwash" – purposeful untruths on impact of products – is not that prominent. However, there's a lot out there that comes close. Beere describes the buzzwords commonly used to greenwash as a "slippery slope" and advises any company to invest in educating their marketers on the ethics of "green" branding.

There is a fine line between green marketing and greenwashing. Unlike greenwashing, green marketing is when companies sell products or services based on legitimate environmental positives. Green marketing is generally practical, honest and transparent, and it means that a product or service meets these criteria:

  • Manufactured in a sustainable fashion
  • Free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances
  • Able to be recycled and/or is produced from recycled materials
  • Made from renewable materials (such as bamboo)
  • Does not use excessive packaging
  • Designed to be repairable rather than disposable

However, it's easy for green marketing to translate to greenwashing in practice, when an organization doesn't live up to the standards of sustainable business practices. "Eco-friendly," "organic," "natural" and "green" are just some examples of the widely used labels that can be confusing and misleading to consumers. If you're ready to slap some grass on your logo, be transparent with customers about your company's practices and have information readily available to back it up.

"Greenwashing is actually in a corporation's best interest," said Deandra Jefferson, office manager at a sustainability organization that she requested go unnamed, in an interview with Business News Daily. "Although the concept of corporate social responsibility exists, it is very rare that corporations actually live up to them, and when they do, it's a surface-level effort to make themselves look good."

In other words, greenwashing benefits a corporation only when they are successful in deceiving their customers, Jefferson said. Transparency can bridge the gap between artificial and genuine concern for the environment.

One example of transparency is activist outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. Unlike most companies, Patagonia doesn't sugarcoat its use of chemicals or the fact that it leaves a footprint. The company's sustainability mission is described as a "struggle to become a responsible company."

"We can't pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company," its website reads. "We don't do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can tell you how we came to realize our environmental and social responsibilities, and then began to act on them."

Do your best to tell your company's sustainability story and avoid greenwashing. It's a dirty practice, and we all know how costly a trip to the cleaners can be.

Carlyann Edwards contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Adryan Corcione

Adryan Corcione is a freelance writer. To learn more about their work, visit their website. They also run a blog called the Millennial Freelancer and a newsletter Rejected Pitches.