What is greenwashing?

The more interested you become in understanding what organisations around the world are doing to become more sustainable, the more you will probably come across the term “greenwashing”.

But what is greenwashing and why is it something we need to be aware of as ethical consumers?

Let’s take a look.

What is greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” is a play on the word “whitewashing”, which means to use misleading information to gloss over bad behaviour.

It refers to a deceptive marketing practice where an organisation conveys a false impression or uses misleading information to make it, its products and/or services seem more environmentally-friendly or sustainable than they actually are.

Why is greenwashing bad?

Today’s consumers are prepared to pay more for ethical brands. Figures suggest the climate crisis and sustainability are the top issues concerning the public, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and 81% of people now expect businesses to be environmentally conscious in their advertising and communications.

Brands want us to believe that they care about the same things as us. More and more of us are choosing to buy from businesses that reflect our values, and greenwashing is a way to ensure that the money keeps rolling in from people who might otherwise shop elsewhere.

In turn, this means that consumers are unintentionally funding unsustainable and unethical practices, such as exploiting workers or damaging the environment.

Greenwashing enables businesses to pay lip service to their corporate social responsibility. It keeps customers looking in the wrong direction, a sleight of hand that means while we’re looking one way, the business is doing something far less ethical elsewhere.

Meanwhile, more conscientious companies are forced to compete against competitors who are using cost-cutting, environmentally damaging practices to dominate the market.

What does greenwashing look like?

Greenwashing can take many different forms, some more calculated than others.

One of the most common forms of greenwashing is when a business chooses to focus on an aspect of its offering that is environmentally-friendly or sustainable while ignoring other aspects that are entirely anti-green (more about this below). This causes customers to believe that they’re buying from an ethical company when they’re not.

Another common example of greenwashing is when businesses use vague terms such as “natural”, “green”, “locally grown”, “humane” or “environmentally-friendly” to make their products sound more sustainable. The problem is that these words are open to interpretation.

For example, if a natural flavouring is dissolved in propylene glycol, a highly-processed synthetic substance, can the company still legitimately claim that the product is natural? Many do.

Or what does “locally grown” really mean as a description? Is the company saying the products were made 10 miles up the road, in the same country or just the same continent? Obviously, the carbon footprint would vary hugely depending on what a business means by local.

How can we spot greenwashing as consumers?

In order to be ethical consumers, we need to ask questions and pay attention to what the companies we buy from don’t say as well as what they say. We can’t accept anything at face value.

These are some common greenwashing tactics to look out for:

Unsubstantiated claims

Be wary of businesses that make unsubstantiated claims about their ethical credentials or that aren’t transparent about their practices – these are two of the biggest tell-tale signs of greenwashing.

A business that is truly ethical (or striving to improve its practices) will have detailed information about their workers and workers’ rights, factories, manufacturing processes, ingredients, supply chain and distribution.

If this information is hidden or not published, we need to question why.

If a business makes a claim on their website or quotes data that paints them in a good light, is there a link to the source? Also, what is the source? Is it reputable? Is it independent? How was the data collected? Is the source connected to the business in any way? When was the data collected as it could be out of date?

Consider too the language a company uses to describe their ethical credentials. Is it vague or precise?

What do you know about the wider industry in which the business operates? For example, a company could claim to be a “market leader” or the “best in class” but does this mean much if their competitors are completely unethical? Is the company really telling you that they’re just slightly less terrible than the rest?!

Ambiguous language

We’ve touched on this above but companies guilty of greenwashing tend to talk a good talk without necessarily being able to back it up with action. If a product or service is labelled as “healthy”, “natural”, “pure”, “raw”, “plant-based”, “plant-derived”, “green”, “animal-friendly”, “locally-grown” or even “organic”, what does this actually mean?

Check the ingredients. Ask the business about their supply chain, credentials, manufacturing processes and more.

Also, be wary of companies that use jargon to describe their practices. Even words like “biodegradable” or “compostable” can be problematic because biodegradable products can still take years to break down and emit greenhouse gases in the meantime.

Equally, look for “fluffy” language such as “We believe….natural is best/workers should be paid a fair wage/too many clothes end up in landfills”* (*add the environmentally-friendly phrase as appropriate!)

A company might say they believe in something but what are they actually doing about it? That’s the real question!

Green imagery

A common tactic with greenwashing is to use images and brand colours that depict a thriving natural environment. Think, for example, about all the plastic water bottles adorned with pictures of tree-covered mountains and crystal clear streams!

In early 2020, the Advertising Standards Authority banned an advertising campaign by Ryanair after the company erroneously claimed it was Europe’s lowest emissions airline. The print ad featured a Ryanair plane flying over rolling green hills with its greenwashed claims set against a green background.

This is just one example of companies using idyllic images to imply their products are sustainable.

It’s sensible to approach overtly “green” images and branding with a healthy degree of cynicism.

Hidden trade-offs

As ethical consumers, we need to be aware of hidden trade-offs, i.e. when a business tells us how environmentally-friendly one aspect of their offering is without recognising other more problematic issues.

Paper and palm oil from sustainable sources spring to mind here. Yes, the products may have come from a sustainably harvested forest but how are the workers treated? How are the items packaged? Where were they made and transported from? Are there any less than environmentally-friendly processes involved in making the product? For example, paper is still sometimes bleached, which can be a water polluter.

This article from Mongabay explains why sustainable palm oil can be problematic.

Or what about clothing lines that are made from sustainable fabrics by workers who aren’t paid a fair living wage?

Again, it’s important to read the sustainability policies on a company’s website and check independent sources to understand more about potential hidden trade-offs. Businesses sometimes make claims that are refuted in independent reports, so we need to look for multiple sources.

False labels or meaningless certification

Did you know that, legally, the word “natural” doesn’t have a definition so it can be used by companies without them having to explain what this means? As a result, a business could claim it uses natural ingredients because they were derived from a plant originally, but they could still be heavily processed or damaging to the environment.

Also, as we pointed out in our article about clean label and ingredient transparency, natural doesn’t always mean ethical. You could argue that animal fur is a natural fibre but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical to make clothes from it!

Many companies take the vagaries of these words and dress them up as labels that look, at first glance, a lot like an official seal of approval. Stamps that claim a product is “Kind to nature” or “Eco-friendly” are widely used and yet they’re meaningless, a design feature created for the company by a graphic designer.

Equally, symbols of globes, trees and flowers also mean nothing unless they come with a clear explanation of what is being done to help the environment.

Defra has compiled a helpful guide to trustworthy green labels and what they each mean.

Recent greenwashing examples

A quick internet search will sadly reveal a significant list of greenwashing examples from around the world. Here are just a few of them:


Green marketing, not greenwashing

It’s important to say that there are companies that have one or two products that are genuinely more sustainable than the rest of their portfolio. It isn’t greenwashing for them to promote these products as environmentally-friendly, as long as they’re not hiding their other products or overstating the impact of one product line to their customers.

Equally, if a company is beginning to move to more sustainable practices, it’s not greenwashing to talk about this as long as they are transparent about their journey and goals as well as highlighting challenges.

Transparency is at the heart of genuine green marketing. If a company is selling products or services based on legitimate and provable environmental positives then it’s right to share this with consumers.

What can we do to stop companies from greenwashing?

As ethical consumers, we have an essential role to play in combating greenwashing. We need to:

– Call out examples when we see them and report them to the Advertising Standards Authority or equivalent organisation, depending on your country

– Look past the packaging and language and find out as much as possible about a company’s ethics

– Ask for evidence that backs up a business’s claims about their ethical credentials

– Look for genuine certification

– Buy from businesses that are committed to being sustainable and environmentally-friendly (and tell our friends about them)

– Look for irrelevant claims – one example is “CFC-free” as CFCs are banned from use so this isn’t an indication of sustainability

– Look for products with minimal and recyclable packaging

– Buy fewer things and repair or reuse what you can

We want to help shine a spotlight on vegan organisations that are genuine about their sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices. If you run one (or you know of one), we’d love it if you’d let us know. You can suggest a listing here.


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