What is Greenwashing? [+How to Avoid It]
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
…the list goes on.
There is no denying that individuals, businesses and the media alike are growing increasingly aware of the negative impacts that not-so-sustainable practices are having on our environment. In fact, there is so much buzz around sustainability that being more sustainable as a business makes you more attractive to customers.
So, a more sustainable business = more potential profits.
There aren’t really any issues with this equation. In fact, we want to live in a society where businesses that prioritise creating more sustainable processes benefit from their efforts. There is no loser in this.
But what happens when businesses find a way to profit from customers’ attention to sustainability, without actually having to invest in improving their process?
In this article, we take a look at the dark world of greenwashing, we explore why it is so bad and what you can do to avoid it in the context of your own business.
In a rush? Here is the quick lowdown on what we cover in this article:
Greenwashing is when a business claims to be more environmentally friendly than they really are
Greenwashing can take place through false claims, but can also be through suggestive marketing such as using colours and images often associated with environmentally friendly products and services
Greenwashing is misleading to customers, removes businesses' motivation to actually be more sustainable and stops us from achieving sustainability targets
Many big businesses such as H&M, Coca-Cola and Nestle have all been accused of greenwashing
Small businesses can also be guilty of greenwashing
Being transparent about sustainability claims, publishing a clear sustainability statement and actually being as sustainable as possible are the best ways to avoid greenwashing
What is Greenwashing?
Let’s keep it simple and kick this all off with the dictionary definition of greenwashing:
“to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is” - Cambridge Dictionary
Although you can dress greenwashing's meaning up in many different ways, ultimately it is the act of a business lying to their customers about their environmental credentials. This is typically done in order to appeal to an environmentally conscious audience, making their products or services seem like a ‘greener’ choice.
Typically greenwashing isn’t an all-out lie, but instead is an exaggeration based on some factual evidence.
For example, an energy company may promote itself as providing renewable energy, even if only a small percentage of its energy is from renewable sources. Similarly, a clothing company may promote the use of recycled materials when only a tiny percentage of the materials used are actually recycled.
Other times greenwashing is done through suggestive marketing.
For example, a fast food restaurant may use natural colours such as greens and browns in their marketing along with images of beautiful natural environments, giving their customers the sense that they are making a more sustainable choice. In this case, no actual claims are made, but the customer is being misled all the same.
Here is a great video on greenwashing by the BBC:
Why is Greenwashing Bad?
It might seem a little obvious why greenwashing is bad, but the problem associated with greenwashing probably runs deeper than you think…
Here are some other reasons why greenwashing is so bad:
Simply put, greenwashing is lying to your customers.
Environmentally conscious customers are often willing to pay more for products when they believe them to be a better environmental choice, so being misled in this way is tricking them into paying more for a product that is little or no better than other options.
Ultimately, when a customer falls for greenwashing, it stops them from making an actual more sustainable choice. This removes profits from the businesses that are really taking the time to improve their processes and products in the search for better sustainability.
It Lets Businesses Get Away with Not Being Green
When a business can leverage sustainability to increase profits, without having to invest in more sustainable processes - they have little or no motivation to actually be more sustainable. This is especially true for businesses that are purely motivated by profits.
So, greenwashing actually reduces the likelihood of businesses improving their sustainability.
It Stops Us From Achieving Carbon Reduction Targets
Many governments across the globe have ambitious but necessary, carbon reduction targets in place - such as the UK government’s target to decarbonise all sectors by 2050. Individuals, businesses and government all have a key role in achieving this.
When businesses market themselves as green but take little actual action to actually reduce carbon emissions it has zero impact on these goals and makes it less likely that we will hit them in the long run.
Examples of Greenwashing Companies
Many big companies are being accused of greenwashing on a regular basis. This can be seen in almost every industry from fashion to oil and gas. In this section, we highlight some of the most prominent accusations of greenwashing in the past few years.
H&M was accused of greenwashing after rolling out a scorecard system that offered customers sustainability information on the products they were selling. These scorecards were reviewed by Quartz. They found that over 50% of products reviewed were being advertised as being more environmentally friendly than they really were. Since the report H&M have removed the scorecards from their website (not pictured).
Nestle is being called out by activists for greenwashing via their controversial waste reduction strategy.
The company claim that they aim for 100% of their packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2025. However, instead of looking to reduce the amount of plastic they produce, they instead propose incinerating the plastic - potentially for use in the cement production process.
In theory, this is ‘reusing’ the plastic. But ultimately it will release significant amounts of toxins into the environment which will harm wildlife, people’s health and the environment.
It is claimed that Coca-Cola is currently greenwashing by claiming that they are using “ocean-bound” and “recyclable” plastics in its packaging. However, there is little evidence of this actually happening.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
Although big businesses such as Coca-Cola, Shell and H&M are often in the media spotlight for greenwashing, this is far from exclusively an issue for corporate behemoths.
Small and medium businesses can also be ‘guilty’ of greenwashing. In many cases this isn’t intentional, instead seeing marketing departments get ‘overzealous’ with claims of sustainability or using wording which doesn’t necessarily fit with the actual actions being taken.
Of course, smaller businesses are less likely to come under media fire for greenwashing - yet being transparent about your environmental credentials is essential both ethically and to ensure that customers don’t feel misled.
Here are a few key ways you can avoid greenwashing:
It is crucial that businesses are honest and transparent about their claims of sustainability - especially when it comes to marketing your business.
In practice, this means avoiding making unclear claims about sustainability - instead offering only facts on what you are doing. For example, rather than simply saying your product is ‘sustainable’ point out exactly what that means (created using renewable energy, using recycled materials, limiting process waste).
Create a Sustainability Statement
A clear and concise sustainability statement will help clarify your claims. How detailed this will depend on your business and the products/services you offer.
Start by listing down every area of your business - such as manufacturing, running an office, travel and energy. Then assess your potential environmental impact in each area. Highlight where you are taking steps to make improvements, areas where you plan on making improvements in the future and areas where you know improvements need to be made but no solution has yet been found.
Make sure your sustainability statement is easy to find and simple to read.
By far the best way to limit the potential of greenwashing is to simply be as environmentally friendly as possible.
Take the time to find environmentally friendly ways to improve businesses process and encourage your customers to deal with your products or services in the most sustainable way possible.
Even though it is likely that greenwashing is often unintentional, it is clear that it is a significant issue that all industries need to overcome. Unless we are able to do this, there will be little motivation for profit-driven organisations to make any real changes in the name of protecting the environment.
Use the tips we have highlighted in this guide to make sure your business is more sustainable and to avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of a business promoting its products or services as more sustainable than they really are. This is often done in order to profit from the popularity of ‘green options’, but can have a vastly negative impact on the environment as a result.
Why is greenwashing bad?
Greenwashing is bad for many reasons. For example, it misleads customers into believing they are making a more sustainable choice than they really are. This can also mean that consumers end up spending more on ‘green options’ that aren't really green at all. When businesses get away with greenwashing it removes their motivation to actually create more sustainable business practices.
How can I avoid greenwashing?
Avoiding greenwashing simple. Firstly, be honest and clear about any sustainability claims you make by backing them up with facts. You can also publish a detailed sustainability statement. Ultimately, the best way to avoid greenwashing is to simply make your business, products and services as sustainable as possible.