Last updated: What is Greenwashing? Definition, examples, and how to avoid it

What is Greenwashing? Definition, examples, and how to avoid it


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As consumer preference for sustainable products grows, so has the problem of greenwashing. Many brands are positioning themselves and their products as healthy for the planet, but consumers have become skeptical, for good reason.

A 2022 Harris Poll for Google Cloud found 80% of 1,491 executives truly believe their companies are doing a bang-up job on environmental sustainability. Yet, 58% of those same leaders globally and 68% in the United States readily admit their companies have overstated their sustainability, or greenwashed, at times.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, or green sheen is a marketing practice where companies provide the public or investors with unsubstantiated or outright false information in order mislead them about their environmental commitments in order to win over consumers. It can involve misleading or even false statements that make a company and its products or services appear environmentally friendly.

When a brand’s claims about going green don’t match up with what they’re really doing to help the planet, that’s greenwashing.

The term was coined back in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld, an ecologist who exposed a hotel’s thin environmental claims. Since then, consumers have become wary of companies and products that purport to be eco-friendly.

A survey of 2,000 US consumers last year found that more than half strive to make sustainable buying choices, but 88% don’t immediately trust brands that say they’re sustainable.

Greenwashing stats highlight the risks

The European Commission last year issued a report that found 42% of corporate environmental claims made online were likely to be false or deceptive. More than half of online green claims lacked evidence.

A NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch report that found net-zero emissions claims from 25 major companies to be highly exaggerated.

“We set out to uncover as many replicable good practices as possible, but we were frankly surprised and disappointed at the overall integrity of the companies’ claims,” said Thomas Day of NewClimate Institute, in a statement.

The risks of greenwashing are huge. Brands could face litigation (there’s a whole greenwashing litigation cottage industry now), regulatory fines, or a loss of public trust.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, customers are highly aware of the gap between a company’s stated environmental goals and actual implementation, which leads to lower customer satisfaction scores.

“Moreover, this blow to customer satisfaction is economically significant; prior studies found that even small changes in a firm’s customer satisfaction score can have significant implications for corporate performance,” researchers said.

Examples of greenwashing

With consumers bombarded by green messaging, there are countless examples of brands misrepresenting their sustainability. Here are some common techniques:

  1. False impressions. Imagery is powerful, after all. Using images of beautiful landscapes in an ad, for example, can convey sustainability while the product isn’t (think plastic water bottles).
  2. Misleading advertising. Terms like natural, organic, and sustainable are used without any third-party certification.
  3. All talk but no action. A brand claims they’re going green, but doesn’t actually change any policies to support the claim or reduce emissions
  4. Distraction. A company promotes a product as green, but ignores other aspects like packaging that hurt the environment.
  5. Meaningless. A brand promotes a product as eco-friendly when it’s actually something that’s a common attribute or a regulatory requirement.
Consumers and activists are are quick to point out hollow environmental claims. Social media is filled with examples, like this:

No publicity, please: “green-hushing”

The risk of being accused of greenwashing is making some organizations skittish about divulging their environmental plans and commitments.

In fact, even though 72% of 1,200 private companies polled by a consultancy called South Pole have emissions targets for meeting global climate goals, nearly a quarter say they have no plans to publicize their progress beyond what’s mandated.

South Pole calls this “green-hushing” and says the lack of transparency is counterproductive.

“More than ever, we need the companies making progress on sustainability to inspire their peers to make a start,” said Renat Heuberger, CEO of South Pole, in a statement. “This is impossible if progress is happening in silence.”

Marketing tips to keep it real

While letting consumers know what you’re doing for the planet is important, marketers must be careful to avoid falling into a greenwashing trap. Here are some things to keep in mind when making environmental claims.

  • Don’t rely on pretty pictures. Warm-and-fuzzy images connoting a more sustainable future look great, but if you can’t honestly articulate and show that you’re genuinely marching toward that vision, avoid superficial imagery at all costs.
  • Be transparent. Use credible third-party certifications and make sure consumers can easily find them.
  • Don’t lie. This seems obvious, yet too many marketers are willing to cut corners on truth or redefine their misstatements as alternative facts. There’s nothing more deadly to brand reputation and loyalty than to be caught deceiving people, even unintentionally. If your company is in early stages with sustainability, be honest and keep them updated on what you’re doing to achieve your goals.
  • Beware of influencers. Marketers have increasingly sought influencer endorsements to help position brands as green friendly, especially with younger audiences. But many of these engagements, especially in the fashion industry, have led to greenwashing accusations. A UK fashion brand came under fire this year for its work with influencer Kourtney Kardashian. When using an influencer to promote environmental responsibility, make sure there’s substance behind the activation.

Greenwashing has been with us for longer than most brands care to admit. With public and regulatory interest in saving the planet continuing to increase, it’s likely to become even more common.

By staying true to a brand and confining promotions and narratives to legitimate environmental activities, brands can avoid any greenwashing griminess.

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