Greenwashing is when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact. It’s a deceitful marketing gimmick used by companies to exaggerate their environmentally friendly actions. It is intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.
We’ll explain greenwashing, how it can damage brands, and what you can do to avoid it.
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 that had little impact beyond saving hotels money in laundry costs. The idea emerged in a period when most consumers received their news primarily from television, radio, and print media, so they couldn’t fact-check the way they could today.
Companies that have engaged in greenwashing on a wide scale have made headlines over the years. In the mid-’80s, for example, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads to broadcast its environmental dedication. But while the now-infamous “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, corporations face an influx of litigation for misleading environmental claims.
For example, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) – a Singapore-based nonprofit backed by big oil and chemical companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil, and Dow – claims to be spending $1.5 billion to clean up plastic waste in developing countries. Despite this supposed goal, AEPW not only failed to honor its promise to clean up the Ganges River in India, but its member organizations went forward with plans to produce even more plastic.
Even the bottled 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 – usually it’s the result of overenthusiasm.
It’s easy to see why marketers are enthusiastic: According to GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index, 64% of Gen X consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, and that figure jumps to 75% among millennials.
If consumer demand for sustainability is the frontier of our transition to a greener, fairer, and smarter global economy, here are 10 basic brand greenwashing tactics to avoid.
There are plenty of socially responsible businesses telling their environmental stories to the world – and even some that aren’t but should be. The incidences of “pure greenwash” – purposeful untruths about a product’s impact – aren’t widespread. However, many examples out there come close.
Beere describes the buzzwords commonly used to greenwash as a “slippery slope” and advises companies to educate their marketers on the ethics of green branding.
Use the following strategies to ensure that your company is not greenwashing.
There’s 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 the following criteria:
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 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 up your claims.