Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.
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What Is Greenwashing?
- 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.
Examples of Greenwashing
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers several illustrations of greenwashing on its website, which details its voluntary guidelines for deceptive green marketing claims. Below is a list containing examples of unsubstantiated claims that would be considered greenwashing.
- A plastic package containing a new shower curtain is labeled “recyclable.” It is not clear whether the package or the shower curtain is recyclable. In either case, the label is deceptive if any part of the package or its contents, other than minor components, cannot be recycled.
- An area rug is labeled “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. Although technically true, the message conveys the false impression that the rug contains a significant amount of recycled fiber.
- A trash bag is labeled “recyclable.” Trash bags are not ordinarily separated from other trash at the landfill or incinerator, so they are highly unlikely to be used again for any purpose. The claim is deceptive since it asserts an environmental benefit where no meaningful benefit exists.
What is Considered Greenwashing?
A firm is deemed to be greenwashing if they spend large amounts of time and money in advertising and marketing their “green” goods or services rather than using that time and money in actually implementing environmentally friendly practices.
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing
In 2008 and 2009, researchers at TerraChoice went to big-box retailers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom and noted down products that were making an environmental claim.
In the United States and Canada alone, 2,219 products were making 4,996 green claims. Of the 2,219 products that made the claims, over 98% committed at least one of what TerraChoice Environmental Marketing referred to as “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing.” In other words, 98% of the products were guilty of greenwashing.
The seven sins of greenwashing, according to TerraChoice, are as follows:
#1 Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
Environmental issues that are emphasized at the expense of another potentially more concerning issue. For example, the harvesting of paper is not necessarily environmentally friendly because it came from a sustainably-harvested forest.
#2 Sin of No Proof
Environmental claims that are not backed up by factual evidence or third-party certification. For example, products that claim a certain percentage of the product come from consumer-recycled content without providing any factual data or details.
#3 Sin of Vagueness
Environmental claims that are lacking in specifics and are deemed meaningless. For example, the term “all-natural” isn’t necessarily “green” – mercury, uranium, and arsenic, to name a few, are naturally occurring.
#4 Sin of Worshipping False Labels
Creating false certifications or labels to mislead consumers. For example, creating a fake certification to mislead consumers into believing that the product went through a legitimate green screening process.
#5 Sin of Irrelevance
Unrelated environmental issues are emphasized. For example, saying a phone is “CFC-free” when CFCs are already banned by law.
#6 Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
Environmental claims on products that have no environmental benefits to begin with. For example, saying cigarettes are organic.
#7 Sin of Fibbing
Environmental claims that are blatantly false. For example, saying that a diesel car emits zero carbon dioxide into the air.
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.
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.
What Is Green Investing?
Green investing consists of investment activities that focus on companies or projects committed to the conservation of natural resources.
What companies are accused of greenwashing?
In a statement, District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced the “greenwashing” settlements with Target, Chewy, PetSmart and Petco. “Greenwashing” is a term for marketing used by companies to deceive customers about their products' or services' environmental friendliness
Is greenwashing unlawful?
In addition to being unethical, greenwashing is illegal. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has strict guidelines, called Green Guides, that address misleading claims.
What is greenwashing and how do you spot it?
Greenwashing is a type of marketing. It is a way to make products more appealing to customers who care about the environment. When companies do things that are harmful to the environment while saying they care about climate change, this is called 'greenwashing'.