Greenwashing is all around us. Even if we don’t automatically realise it when we see it, it is there, day in and day out. They are nefarious statements we hear from brands, corporations and governments.
We find greenwashed claims on packaging, in advertising, in the media and shared by online influencers. We come across them in every industry and sometimes we even make greenwashed statements to ourselves.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing can be defined as false, misleading, unfounded or ambiguous claims regarding the environmental or social impact of a product or company, often for the purpose of promoting a sustainable or eco-friendly public image.
Why does greenwashing exist? Because it works!
The concept of greenwashing has been around since the 1960s but became much more prominent in the online world, particularly over the last 15 years.
If you have access to this article (paywall), the author provides an excellent summary of the types of greenwashing and some general examples. This is helpful when considering how to spot or identify greenwashing. Some of these types of greenwashing include:
- Selective disclosure. Disclosing the positives while ignoring the negatives. This can also be related to a lack of transparency and greenwashing by omission.
- Lack of proof. Making claims with little or no supporting evidence.
- Ambiguous claims. Broad statements that lack specific details.
- Irrelevant claims. Making claims that are truthful but of no value. For example, stating candles are lead-free when lead-based wicks have been banned in the United States since the 1970s.
- Misleading use of certifications.
- Deceitful labels. Creating an in-house eco-friendly label that is made to look like a reputable 3rd-party label.
- False claims. Straight out lying.
Greenwashing impacts consumer choices, can lead us astray and eventually diminishes consumer confidence and trust.
It’s worth noting that greenwashing might not be actions or statements that deny climate change but they are most definitely contirubting to delayed action.
Examples of Greenwashing
Unfortunately, we’re faced with multiple examples of greenwashing on a daily basis. Some of the most prominent and notable are listed below:
- Banks. Banks share their net-zero targets and policies with their customers and shareholders and the actions they’re taking to reduce emissions. They do this through their sustainability disclosures and marketing material. This is great but they also finance coal, oil and gas companies who are the world’s largest contributors to climate change. This is something they don’t actively advertise yet they do advertise when they finance the arts.
- Aviation. An interesting example of greenwashing is the case of Heathrow airport. Heathrow has pledged to be a zero-carbon airport, a responsible employer and a leader in sustainability. Of course, it’s the flights themselves that cause the most carbon emissions and noise pollution, not the actual airport.
- Car industry. A famous case of greenwashing occurred when it was determined by a court that Volkswagen had deliberately deceived customers and regulators regarding the environmental performance of their cars. Electric vehicle production is also often greenwashed when they overlook mentioning the negative environmental impact of microplastic pollution from tyres as well as production emissions.
- Sports sponsorship. A nice example of subtle greenwashing comes in the form of sports sponsorships by your local fossil fuel company. It’s quite common for energy and mining companies to sponsor sports or events as a way to divert attention from the environmental, climate or human rights damage they are involved in.
- Certified sustainable palm oil. Although sustainable palm oil certification means the palm oil is sourced directly from certified producers, in some cases, these certifications can be purchased and traded. Some companies are buying the certificate but not the underlying product then claim their products are sustainable because the payments go to sustainable producers.
- Fast fashion. Regular and significant complaints about greenwashing in the fashion industry are continuing. H&M provides us with a number of examples of greenwashing:
- The introduction of a sustainable collection when the majority of their clothing is unsustainable.
- Promoting in-store recycling of clothing without being transparent as to how or where or even if the items are recycled.
- Ambiguous and insufficient claims about sustainability.
- Controversial usage of materials that incorporate plastic and petroleum-based additives.
- Lack of transparency regarding supply chain emissions.
- Advertising industry. There are many examples here, for instance, sustainable activewear or swimsuit brands that insist on flying their entire team abroad for a photoshoot.
- Green hotels. Removing mini shampoos from hotel rooms and reusing towels are the absolute bare minimum a sustainable hotel should do. These are symbolic gestures more than anything. It does not make them eco-friendly or sustainable and certainly doesn’t address climate change. Hotels should instead focus on energy efficiency and conservation, switching to renewable energy sources and paying their staff a living wage. Here’s a quick guide to achieving sustainability in hotels and what to look for when booking your own trip.
- Biodegradable plastic. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic often fails to degrade except under ideal environmental conditions. Claims surrounding the environmental benefits of biodegradable products are often greenwashed.
- Eco-friendly products. We sometimes greenwash our lives by telling ourselves that we are doing our part for the environment or climate change by buying organic or eco-friendly or ethically made products. While these may be better choices, it ignores typical household consumption that includes new phones, appliances, cars, smart watches etc and the carbon emissions generated through their production and supply.
- Fairtrade coffee. Another example of how we might ‘self-greenwash’ is when we purchase fair trade items. Yes, fair trade products may have a positive social impact on producers or farmers. But let’s not kid ourselves, buying things like coffee, chocolate and tea is in not sustainable or eco-friendly. After the coffee is produced it is typically transported by a diesel truck, shipped or more likely flown to another country where it is transported again, roasted in a facility that probably doesn’t use renewable energy and then transported again to a cafe or your home. Of course, this is how the world we live in works, and much of it is out of our control, but let’s not pretend this consumption is free from negative environmental impacts.
- Carbon offsets. Companies and others widely use carbon offsetting as a way to reduce emissions or reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is often done by planting trees or other vegetation. However, there is increasing evidence of the failure of offsets to provide actual climate benefits.
Honestly, I could write a book about this. There are so many examples, this is just a handful to get you thinking about the issue and to remind you to keep a healthy scepticism when faced with marketing claims and what you see on social media.
For details on companies that have been accused of greenwashing or false or misleading advertising, this list is helpful. It includes so-called natural or sustainable products or brands like Burt’s Bees, Whole Foods, Oatly, Allbirds running shoes, Earth Rated dog poop bags and several natural cleaning product brands.
Badgley, G., Freeman, J., Hamman, J. J., Haya, B., Trugman, A. T., Anderegg, W. R. L., & Cullenward, D. (2022). Systematic over-crediting in California’s forest carbon offsets program. Global Change Biology, 28(4), 1433-1445. doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15943
Jones, E. (2019). Rethinking Greenwashing: Corporate Discourse, Unethical Practice, and the Unmet Potential of Ethical Consumerism. Sociological Perspectives, 62(5), 728-754. 10.1177/0731121419849095
Kaner, G. (2021). Greenwashing: How Difficult It Is to Be Transparent to the Consumer—H&M Case Study. In C. Mukonza, R. E. Hinson, O. Adeola, I. Adisa, E. Mogaji, & A. C. Kirgiz (Eds.), Green Marketing in Emerging Markets: Strategic and Operational Perspectives (pp. 203-226). Springer International Publishing. 10.1007/978-3-030-74065-8_9
Ziajahromi, S., Drapper, D., Hornbuckle, A., Rintoul, L., & Leusch, F. D. L. (2020). Microplastic pollution in a stormwater floating treatment wetland: Detection of tyre particles in sediment. Science of The Total Environment, 713, 136356. doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.136356