What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is essentially when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimizing their environmental impact. It’s a deceitful advertising method to gain favor with consumers who choose to support businesses that care about bettering the planet. Greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against environmental issues, like climate change, plastic ocean pollution, air pollution, and global species extinctions.
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.
- 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.
Read more: WHY IS CSR IMPORTANT IN BUSINESS?
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.
How Can You Spot Greenwashing and Avoid It?
- Watch out for “fluffy language,” ie. words or terms with no clear meaning (eg “eco-friendly,” “produced sustainably,” etc)
- Declarations from a company that it is slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible (eg. BP placing solar panels on its gas stations and saying that it is “working to be more sustainable”)
- “Greening” dangerous products to make it seem safe (eg, “eco-friendly” cigarettes)
- Using jargon or information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Providing no proof of a claim
- Presenting totally fabricated claims or data as fact
- Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is dirty (eg again, BP and their solar panels)
- Companies that aren’t transparent or open, and don’t admit to making mistakes
The sustainable landscape today is not like in Jay Westerveld’s time in the 80s – we have the means to research brands we invest our time and money in. We have immense power as consumers; we create the landscape that businesses operate in, so where our money goes, their focus goes. We need to make sure that this focus goes towards sustainability. Businesses cannot get away with greenwashing anymore; as the climate crisis accelerates, we simply can’t waste any time in shifting to more eco-friendly practices.
Act to Prevent Greenwashing
Of course, not all companies engage in greenwashing. Some products are entirely safe and environmentally friendly. These products usually come in packaging detailing the marked differences in their contents from competing versions. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) helps protect consumers by enforcing laws to ensure competitive and fair markets. The FTC offers guidance on how to distinguish genuine eco-friendly products from greenwashed ones:
- Packaging and advertisements must explain the product’s green claims in simple language and legible type near the claim.
- Environmental marketing claims must determine whether the claim is made about the product, packaging, or only part of the product or packaging.
- Product marketing claims must not exaggerate, directly or impliedly, environmental attributes or benefits.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers several illustrations of greenwashing on its website, detailing voluntary guidelines for fraudulent greenwashing claims. Below is a list containing examples of unfounded allegations that would be considered greenwashing:
- The plastic package containing the new shower curtain is labeled “recyclable.” It needs to be clarified whether the package or shower curtain is recyclable. In either case, the label is deceptive because any part of the package or its contents, other than minor components, is not recyclable.
- Area rugs are labeled “50% more recycled content than ever.” Manufacturers increase recycled content from 2% to 3%. While technically correct, the message conveys the false impression that the carpet contains large amounts of recycled fiber.
- Garbage bags are labeled “recyclable.” Garbage bags are usually not separated from other waste in landfills or incinerators, so they are unlikely to be reused for any purpose. This claim is deceptive because it asserts environmental benefits where there are no significant benefits.