The landscape of business has changed immensely over the past few decades. Through globalization and the increasing reach of digital technology, we now have access to a plethora of choices for pretty much anything we want to buy – and more information than ever about its impacts.
As consumers, many of us have become more aware of the ethics of our purchasing decisions. Urged to ‘vote with our wallet’, we’re seeking out brands with environmental and social credentials, and over a third of us are willing to pay more for those products, too.
Unfortunately, a less savory phenomenon has emerged to cater for our more conscious tastes. Greenwashing is when a company or organization makes itself appear to be doing more to protect the environment than it actually is – and its methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
In this explainer, we’ll explore some key elements of greenwashing, including what it is, what it looks like, and what policymakers are doing about it.
What is greenwashing?
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westervelt. It’s derived from the concept of ‘whitewashing,’ which denotes covering up undesirable information to improve one’s reputation.
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image,” greenwashing works by appealing to consumer concern about environmental issues and manipulating people’s perceptions through misleading marketing.
When a company engages in greenwashing, it might put more effort into its green image than on meaningful efforts to minimize its environmental impact. It might loudly promote the good work it’s doing but avoid mentioning less sustainable practices.
For instance, last year, HSBC – the world’s biggest consumer bank – was forced to take down an ad that touted its tree planting scheme and net zero plan without mentioning that it’s also one of the world’s biggest backers of fossil fuel projects.
Greenwashing isn’t always deliberate: a company might have honest intentions but adopt inappropriate methods – and then fail to communicate their efforts clearly.
What’s the problem with greenwashing?
If companies are rewarded for greenwashing, many won’t bother making changes that are meaningful and necessary.
Consumers who have been convinced to spend extra money on ‘greenwashed’ items – and then realized their error – can become disillusioned with the whole idea of trying to live more sustainably. This then hurts companies that are genuinely making a positive impact.
But the growing stigma around greenwashing also has its challenges. In a counter-phenomenon termed ‘greenhushing,’ many companies are now keeping quiet about their sustainability advances, for fear of being accused of greenwashing.
Instead of doing this, sustainability experts are encouraging companies to share their progress – but be very specific about any claims they make and transparent about ongoing challenges.
In a blog post, Dutch glasses brand Ace & Tate recalls some of its most embarrassing ‘bad moves’ on the way to becoming a certified B Corp – such as making a new glasses case out of a mix of bamboo fiber and plastic, which actually made it much more difficult to recycle than those made purely from plastic.
How can you spot greenwashing?
Greenwashing most often takes the form of exaggeration, such as through the vague use of sustainability ‘buzzwords.’ Phrases like ‘all natural’ or ‘contains organic ingredients’ are classic examples, as a broad range of harmful chemicals still fit under these definitions.
Terms like ‘recyclable,’ ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ also frequently fail to stand up to scrutiny, as there may not be facilities to do so in the areas where the product is sold.
Another common greenwashing tactic is the misleading use of imagery that’s commonly associated with environmentalism, such as shades of green and pictures of trees.
Fake or inadequate certification is another big red flag. For instance, the use of a green tick or the phrase ‘certified green’ can give the impression of third-party certification. The ‘recycle triangle’ is also commonly used to imply that something is recyclable without actual evidence.
Greenwashed products often lack comprehensive information about their full life cycle. For example, many brands of ‘eco’ nappies and baby wipes advertise their products as having a high percentage that’s biodegradable, which leaves consumers wondering what makes up the rest – and how to dispose of it all. Putting compostable items in landfill leads to harmful methane emissions, and throwing plastics into compost isn’t great for our soils and oceans, either.
It’s also useful to look at a company’s overall sustainability practices – not just those of the specific product you’re purchasing. A quick Google search will often uncover inconsistencies. Look out for the ‘green halo effect’ too – if a company is talking up its philanthropic donations, this may be an attempt to distract from the environmental impact of its core business.
If you’re not sure: ask! Feel free to publicly reach out to companies on social media. Companies accused of greenwashing can incur significant brand damage, so it’s worth their while to respond – and change their practices if that’s called for. Resources like the Better World Shopping Guide can also help with sourcing more legitimately sustainable products.
What are governments doing about greenwashing?
Governments around the world are cracking down on greenwashing by introducing legal definitions of terms like ‘carbon-neutral’ and ‘recyclable.’ The E.U. recently released a new taxonomy for sustainable activities, an investor’s guide that defines what investments can be considered ‘green’ – though this has itself been accused of greenwashing gas and nuclear energy.
At COP27 last year, a UN expert panel launched a report calling for regulation to stop baseless environmental claims by companies, banks and councils, and providing tangible steps for these groups to walk their talk.
Meanwhile, analysts predict that governments will become stricter about greenwashing to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement. New measures could include new environmental, social and governance (ESG) frameworks, greater attention to Scope 3 emissions, and the Science-Based Targets initiative.
However, most examples of greenwashing only make it to governments’ attention after people like us complain about them – so don’t be afraid to let your local lawmakers know about any misleading green claims you see.