- Greenwashing is when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts.
- Companies can greenwash even when they have good intentions.
- As a result of greenwashing, most American consumers do not believe company claims about their sustainability practices.
- This article is for business owners who want to ensure sustainability claims in their marketing materials have genuine merit.
You’ve probably heard of whitewashing at least once in the corporate world. Whitewashing is when an organization covers up or glosses over scandalous information by presenting a biased representation of the facts. But greenwashing isn’t nearly as well known.
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 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.
What is greenwashing?
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.
Did you know? A whopping 83% of Americans are concerned about the environmental impact of products they buy and say it’s important for companies to design more environmentally friendly products.
How greenwashing harms a brand’s reputation
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.
Did you know? Greenwashing has a cost. According to a GreenPrint survey, more than half (53%) of American consumers “sometimes” or “never” believe companies’ environmental claims.
How to avoid greenwashing
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.
- Fluffy language: Don’t throw around words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., “eco-friendly” or “natural”).
- Green products vs. dirty company: Watch out for hypocrisies, such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers.
- Evocative pictures: Don’t use branding images that give an unjustified green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes).
- Designations that are just not credible: Look out for obvious attempts to “green” a dangerous product to make it seem safe. (Eco-friendly cigarettes, anyone?)
- Imaginary friends: Don’t use a label that looks like a third-party endorsement but is actually made up.
- Outright lies: Never use totally fabricated claims or data.
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.
Key takeaway: Consumers have deep relationships with brands they trust. Even if you’ve built a powerful brand, nothing destroys trust in a business more than consumers realizing it has been lying to them about something they deeply care about.
Tips to avoid inadvertent greenwashing
Use the following strategies to ensure that your company is not greenwashing.
- Make your claims clear and easy to understand. Include details such as specific units of measurement (e.g., “70% organic cotton” rather than “made with organic cotton”) and specific certifications and verifiable endorsements from credible third-party eco-organizations, such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace.
- Back up your sustainability claims with data. Keep current data available, and update it on your website and anywhere else you make sustainability claims. Only use data that can be verified. If possible, include credible third-party certification from sources such as the Carbon Trust Standard, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance, or Energy Star.
- Compare apples to apples. When comparing your product’s sustainability to a competitor’s, make sure to compare the same product type so you’re not misleading consumers.
- Clean up your operations. If you want to market your products as eco-friendly, you need to walk the walk by making sustainability part of your business model. Institute sustainable practices in your manufacturing, waste disposal and distribution operations.
- Be honest about your brand’s sustainability practices and plans. Inform consumers about how green your individual products are, as well as your company’s overall sustainability practices. When discussing plans or goals, be specific about your targets and timelines so consumers can hold you accountable.
- Make sure images on ads and packaging are not misleading. Don’t use the color green or images from nature, like trees and flowers, to imply that your products or brand are eco-friendly if that’s not the case.
Tip: Along with prioritizing sustainability, corporate social responsibility includes instituting workplace ethics and participating in philanthropic efforts.
Difference between green marketing and 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:
- Manufactured in a sustainable fashion
- Free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances
- Recyclable or produced from recycled materials
- Made from renewable materials (such as bamboo)
- Not made of materials harvested from a protected area, or that negatively impact threatened or endangered species with their harvest
- Not manufactured with slave labor or by workers who are not fairly paid
- 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 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.
Transparency and corporate social responsibility
“Greenwashing is actually in a corporation’s best interest,” said Deandra Jefferson, former office manager for 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 [it], and when they do, it’s a surface-level effort to make themselves look good.”
In other words, greenwashing benefits a corporation only when it successfully deceives its customers. 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.
Jennifer Dublino and Adryan Corcione contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.