A guide to spotting and avoiding greenwashing

Written by
February 22, 2024
5 min read

In an era where environmental consciousness is at its peak, consumers are increasingly drawn to companies that showcase their commitment to sustainability. However, beneath the surface of eco-friendly marketing campaigns lies a phenomenon known as "greenwashing." This deceptive practice allows businesses to appear more environmentally responsible than they truly are, misleading consumers and diluting the genuine efforts of those striving to make a positive impact on the planet. This blog will explore; 

  1. What is Greenwashing? 
  2. Why is it an issue? 
  3. How to spot it. The common tactics 
  4. How to prevent it 

What is greenwashing? 

In simple terms, Greenpeace defines it as “a PR tactic that's used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact”. 

In essence, it's a deceptive strategy where products are portrayed as environmentally friendly when, in reality, they are not, essentially amounting to a form of lying. Consumers are tricked into believing that products or services have more of a good impact on the environment than they do. 

Another definition attributed to Greenpeace is “when you spend more on Marketing than you do on solving the problem”. Instead of doing the work, companies find it easier to simply trick people into thinking that they have put in the work. 

The main reason that companies or organisations greenwash is to appeal to the rapidly growing environmentally conscious consumer. For example, if a fashion company claims to be sustainable, using sustainably sourced materials is going to place them at an advantage with consumers over other fashion rivals. Greenwashing is a simple way for companies to pretend they care about the environment, without actually putting in any work, whilst increasing their profit.   

Why is greenwashing an issue? 

  1. Undermining genuine efforts
    Greenwashing not only misleads consumers but also undermines the credibility of businesses genuinely committed to sustainability. Legitimate efforts to reduce environmental impact may be overshadowed by the deceptive practices of those engaging in greenwashing. Furthermore, Greenwashing can lead people who are actively trying to be a part of the solution to becoming unknowingly a part of the problem, due to misled marketing or false claims.
  2. Loss of trust from consumers
    Greenwashing undermines people’s trust in sustainability claims, meaning they invest in them less, which hinders the progress that needs to be seen to slow global warming. In a study conducted by an online retailer called OnBuy, in 2020, it was found that 83% of consumers feel misled by sustainability catchwords. This stops people from buying from brands that are sustainable because they think it is more false marketing. Greenwashing is a major setback in the mission towards sustainability and becoming more eco-friendly.    

How to spot greenwashing- the common tactics 

  1. Misleading Labels
    Companies often use ambiguous terms like "natural," "green," or "eco-friendly" without providing clear evidence to support these claims. These labels can create a false sense of environmental responsibility, as the actual impact of the product may be far from what the consumer assumes.
    For example, H&M has a ‘conscious choice’ collection which suggests to a consumer that the items are sustainable, or at least comparably more sustainable than other product lines. Nevertheless, even if certain products are crafted with '50% or more sustainable materials, (as H&M claims) they cannot be deemed genuinely eco-friendly due to the predominant use of polyester which contributes significantly to environmental harm and the climbing carbon emissions. 
  2. Suggestive Imagery
    Greenwashing is also facilitated through the use of nature-centric imagery, such as images of forests, wildlife, or lush landscapes. While these visuals may evoke a sense of environmental consciousness, they may have little to no relevance to the actual practices of the company.
    H&M does this in the ad above and Fiji Water, similarly makes use of both misleading labels and suggestive imagery to claim that their products are carbon negative, when in fact their manufacturing contributes to carbon emissions and pollution. This combination created a false eco-friendly image which led to a lawsuit being filed against Fiji for greenwashing. 
  3. Partial disclosures
    Some companies selectively disclose positive aspects of their operations while conveniently omitting less flattering information. This selective transparency allows them to appear more sustainable than they truly are. Let's go back to H&M for example, in their ads they conveniently leave out that the other 50% of the materials in their products are pollutants as it would ruin their sustainability campaign. 
  4. Token initiatives
    Companies might engage in superficial eco-friendly initiatives, such as limited-edition "green" products or one-time tree-planting campaigns, to create the illusion of a deep commitment to sustainability. In reality, these efforts may be mere distractions from more substantial environmental issues within the company.

As a consumer, you should look out for these tactics used by companies and ensure you only support those who can provide genuine evidence of their climate activism and do not use it as a marketing tactic to raise their profits. 

It is crucial to approach claims of sustainability with a critical eye. By staying informed and holding businesses accountable, we can contribute to the fight against greenwashing and encourage companies to adopt more transparent and genuinely sustainable practices. 

How to avoid greenwashing as a business

To ensure your business is not contributing to this problem there are a few simple rules you can follow to be one hundred percent sure you are not greenwashing. 

  1. Be very clear about what sustainability benefit your company has
    Make your claims very understandable and specific, in terminology that everybody will know. Don't use fancy words that will confuse the consumer about the true sustainability of your product. Also do not try to blur the truth about the eco-friendliness of your product, its packaging or the business surrounding it, this way there can be no confusion and no accusation that you are greenwashing. For example, 20% of the energy used in production for Adidas is renewable, they are specific with the fact it is only 20% (for now) so customers are not tricked into thinking they use entirely renewable energy. 
  2. Collect evidence that backs up your sustainability claims
    Prove that the claims made by your business about its lessening impact on the environment are verified by third-party certifications and check up regularly on this statement to ensure your claims are still true (Eg) SKOOT, B-Corp
  3. Don't give a false impression when marketing your product
    Only use images that are relevant to the claims that you are making. For example, changing your logo to green or having images of trees surrounding your marketing if you are not making a product that is sustainable or if you are not using renewable energy and offsetting carbon emissions is greenwashing.  

The battle against greenwashing is not just about holding businesses accountable; it's about fostering a collective commitment to a sustainable future—one where corporate actions align with the environmental promises they make. As we continue to demand truth and transparency, we can influence a shift towards a truly green and responsible business landscape.

At SKOOT we ensure that businesses, organizations and individuals are all able to genuinely contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. With our certified carbon credits and tree planting there is no greenwashing here.

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Written by
February 22, 2024
5 min read