What is greenwashing?

May 9, 2023

How to spot and avoid greenwashing

earth with green washing over it

Greenwashing is:

A deception tactic—whether intentional or accidental—employed by companies that can cause customers to believe its products, services, or mission are more environmentally impactful than is true.

How many times have you heard the phrase “going green” in recent years? Certainly too many to count. We’ve hit peak green fatigue, and greenwashing practices could be the culprit.

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice that involves unsubstantiated claims about a sustainable product or service attributes. To put it another way: Greenwashing is a ploy used by companies to trick customers into believing an organization’s products, services, or mission have more of an environmental impact than is accurate. 

In a world where we all need to do everything we can to combat climate change, whether it's unintentional or intentional, greenwashing (which is sometimes called “green sheen”) is still an environmental issue. It undermines companies that actually utilize sustainable brand practices to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and makes it harder for conscious consumers to make eco-friendly decisions with their wallets. And in the long run, it erodes consumer trust in genuinely eco-friendly and sustainable brands. 

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How to spot greenwashing  

Would-be sustainable products and campaigns that employ greenwashing as a not-so-honest sales tactic use lofty and meaningless terminology and imagery to paint themselves as a viable and sustainable option. Terms like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” even “farm fresh” are typically red flags for greenwashing. 

Deflection and opaque statements also help greenwashing work on the unsuspecting consumer. For example, eggs can be advertised as “cage-free,” when, in reality, hens aren’t in a cage, just crowded indoor pens. Another common greenwashing tactic: highlighting a single sustainable component—for example, a company or brand promotes that it no longer uses plastic straws, but the cup is still plastic, or worse, Styrofoam. 

Most greenwashing and false green marketing claims stem from two common tactics: 

1. Changes to branding

Rebranding is a classic greenwashing tactic. Companies often rebrand or repackage their products to look more “green” by changing logos, colors, and mottos with environmentally-friendly buzzwords and imagery. Look for natural colors (including the look of recycled paper), animals and plants, and phrases, including phrases mentioned above. 

2. Claims of legitimacy

Typical examples of greenwashing focus or magnify a narrow set of a product or service’s attributes that appear eco-friendly. The tactic purposefully ignores the environmentally harmful aspects and fails to substantiate eco-friendly or sustainability claims. For example, a minimal amount of a product’s packaging might be biodegradable, compostable, or made from recycled content. Still, the majority of the product or company’s practices are harmful to the environment. 

Sadly, companies greenwash without abandon and accountability—though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does have green guidelines. When you see the color green and images related to sustainability—trees, animals, or the Earth—take a closer look. If a company can’t provide verifiable data that backs up its green claims, you’ve likely spotted an example of greenwashing. Instead, look for reputable third-party certifications like ENERGY STAR for appliances and electronics, and others like Fair Trade Certified for food products, LEED for energy-efficient buildings, and WaterSense for water-saving products. 

Flowchart to help determine if your brand is greenwashing
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Problems with greenwashing  

When done correctly, sustainable efforts can help a company’s bottom line, reducing water and power bills and cutting the material used and wasted (and therefore, bought). But greenwashing poses a significant business threat. Companies may genuinely believe they’re making a considerable dent in their carbon footprint and advertise such efforts to their employees, customers, and stakeholders. But the reality is that what they’re doing doesn’t always have the intended result.  

Greenwashing can have devastating effects on employee engagement. When workers sense their employer leads consumers astray by greenwashing, they lose faith in their company. It leads to decreased productivity, morale, and a high turnover rate.  

When an organization greenwashes, it siphons market share away from goods and services that truly impact the environment and simultaneously erodes stakeholder trust.  

Put simply, greenwashing bites companies in the end. 

A classic example: the 2015 Volkswagen scandal colloquially known as “Dieselgate.” The German car manufacturer made false claims and long touted their diesel vehicles as better for the environment. However, the company purposefully installed software in 11 million cars to trick carbon emissions tests into favorable results, allowing VW to get away with higher CO2 emissions vehicles than laws allowed. The resulting recalls and a massive hit to consumer trust cost VW $30 billion.  

How to avoid and prevent greenwashing  

The best way to prevent greenwashing in your business is to foster transparency, especially when it comes to the environmental benefits of your products or services. This means working on your emissions management, setting actionable goals, tracking your progress, and producing verifiable reports

Sustainability management software like Sustain.Life is a great way to bake impact-driven solutions into your organization while simultaneously preventing greenwashing and providing financial benefits.  

Before your company’s marketers make any claims about being sustainable or eco-friendly, follow these steps: 

1. Identify green initiatives and for improvement. Whether your company is a sustainable fashion upstart or a product packaging behemoth, start by identifying low-hanging fruit—areas for reducing waste and what would otherwise end up in the landfill and switch out parts of your product for recycled materials where possible. While it takes effort to identify ways to operate more sustainably, the rewards are worth it. More sustainable goods and services lower your overhead, reduce risk, drive stakeholder and employee engagement, and open new market opportunities. 

2. Set realistic goals. While the adage “what gets measured gets managed” is true for sustainability reporting, it’s essential to understand your carbon dioxide emissions. Be realistic before making net-zero claims. Too often, companies rely too heavily on carbon offsets, which can start to feel like a form of greenwashing when used in place of mitigation efforts. (Learn why here.)

3. Commit to transparency and accurate reporting. If you’re going to make an environmental claim that your product is sustainable or green, back it up with honest ESG disclosures and evidence. Greenwashing typically uses language, not numbers. Genuine companies that implement sustainable practices will have the data and metrics to back up their claims. Your customers will have more confidence in a green product claiming “87.9% powered by renewable energy” than lofty marketing that says, “made with nature in mind.” 

4. Let visibility and the market help tell your story. If you’ve done the work to operate more sustainably and you can prove it, make it a part of your marketing—share a peek into your environmental practices and green supply chain management on your blog social media or share an annual sustainability report. Nothing builds stakeholder loyalty better than a company that backs up its environmental claims. 

Want help with your anti-greenwashing efforts? Start your sustainability journey today.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Christian Yonkers
Michigan-based journalist, environmentalist, and writer.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Greenwashing tricks customers into believing an organization’s products, services, or mission are more environmentally impactful than they areally are.

• Terms like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” even “farm fresh” are typically red flags for greenwashing.

• The best way to prevent greenwashing in your business is to foster transparency, especially when it comes to the environmental benefits of your products or services