What are the different forms of greenwashing, what are the reasons behind them, and how can you see through it?

Greenwashing is marketing and communication from companies that make their products or services appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. The term was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay, where he used the term to describe hotels that encouraged guests to reuse towels in order to save water – “Help us help our environment” – while at the same time running an environmentally damaging business. The phenomena existed before the term was coined, but it became more and more common when consumers started to ask for more sustainable alternatives, and be ready to pay for them.


What are the most common forms of greenwashing?

Vague or irrelevant claims: Companies may use terms like “eco-friendly” or “all-natural” without providing any specific information to back up these claims.

Hidden trade-offs: Companies may highlight one aspect of their product or service that is environmentally friendly while ignoring other aspects that are harmful.

Misleading labels or certifications: Companies may use labels or certifications that suggest a product or service is environmentally friendly, but these may be misleading or even fake.

Irrelevance: Companies may make environmental claims about a “hero product” or service that are technically true but not relevant to the overall impact of the business operations.

Lesser of two evils: Companies may market a product or service as environmentally friendly when it is actually just less harmful than an even more harmful alternative.

Only focus on goals and missions: To make bold claims about for example “Race to net zero” without backing it up by a clear action plan and transparent reporting along the way.

Fibbing: Companies may outright lie about the environmental impact of their product or service.


What are the reasons behind greenwashing?

The most obvious reason is of course to sell more without doing the demanding work of running a responsible company. However, all greenwashing does not need to be intentional. More often it is the result of lack of knowledge.

One common reason is over-enthusiasm for achievements and underestimating difficulties. Companies that recently have embarked on a transition often think that the journey ahead will be easier and start communicating before they have a systematic approach and any significant achievements.

Another common reason is communication gaps between the sustainability departments and the marketing team (or agency). The people responsible for making the communication do not fully understand what the sustainability experts actually are working with.


How can I as a customer see through greenwashing?

Besides keeping your eyes on the different forms presented above, the best way is to research and learn more about different sustainability aspects of the products you search for. The more educated you become, the easier it will be to make the best choices.

A part of this is to get a clear image of what certificates that can be trusted, and which are more dubious.

Also – ask questions. To retailer staff, customer services, brands, and within your personal network as well. More and more people are gaining insights and can share both best and worst cases.


What does legislation say?

Efforts have been made – and are being made – to increase transparency and accountability in environmental marketing. For instance, In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission released updated guidelines for environmental marketing claims that aim to provide clearer and more consistent guidance to companies about how to make truthful and non-deceptive environmental claims.

The EU is working with a legislation package called “substantiating green claims” that will soon enter into force. And many European nations already have similar legislation in place, as a part of an overall legislation about marketing.


Lead Photo: iStock

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