How to Spot and Avoid Greenwashing
As more consumers call out dirty brands, ads for green initiatives are popping up everywhere. Yet in 2021, the European Commission found 42% of green claims were exaggerated, deceptive, or untrue.
Unfortunately, it's hard to distinguish genuine climate commitments from lip service. In a recent study, over half of consumers couldn't identify false environmental claims. People who consider themselves eco-conscious were even more susceptible.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is marketing that makes a company’s environmental practices sound better than they really are. These tactics help brands distance themselves from controversy, deflect responsibility for their climate impact, or profit from shifting consumer demand without becoming more sustainable. Greenwashing isn’t new – it’s been around as long as the modern environmental movement. It’s not always intentional, but it’s always damaging.
How to recognize greenwashing
There are a several signs an environmental claim isn’t what it seems. They’re known as the seven sins of greenwashing.
1. Hidden Trade-Offs
Promoting an environmental solution that contributes to another problem. An electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer may tout that its cars reduce emissions, but not mention the damage caused by mining rare earth metals for EV batteries.
2. No Proof
An environmental claim that isn’t backed by evidence. A company might say it has reduced emissions or plastic use without providing sufficient information to verify the statement.
Making claims or commitments that lack specificity or definition. A company may call itself “green” or announce future net zero ambitions without providing further a concrete plan or details.
Promoting a benefit that is technically true, but doesn’t really matter. An action that is good for the planet, but doesn’t change the company’s core environmental impact. Or, an action that is the government-mandated minimum.
5. Lesser of Two Evils
Framing something as the best option, when all options are unsustainable. For instance, an airline or car company may highlight superior fuel efficiency, but flying and driving are still the highest-emission forms of transportation.
6. Worshiping False Labels
Taking advantage of misleading signals or certifications. Companies changing their brand to appear more sustainable – like switching to a green logo, putting trees on their packaging, or obtaining sub-par environmental credentials.
Making a claim that is flat-out false. A company placing “non-toxic” label on a product made with toxic chemicals. Since fibbing is easier to prove and penalize, it’s less common than other types of greenwashing.
Examples of Greenwashing
You can find greenwashing anywhere an industry stands to profit from environmental claims. Here are a few examples of greenwashing to help spot it in the wild.
As the world’s second-largest polluter after fossil fuels, the fashion industry has faced growing consumer scrutiny in recent years. In response, more brands are introducing things like in-store recycling programs and sustainably-made collections.
Unfortunately, these initiatives often represent a tiny portion of a brand’s total environmental impact. Brands get green credentials without addressing larger issues like production emissions, apparel waste, and worker exploitation. For instance, H&M was one of the first to make ethical business practices central to its brand, but came under fire in 2017 for burning tonnes of unsold stock each year.
According to recent research, over 65% of consumers say they consider a product’s sustainability when they make a purchase. In response, companies around the world are announcing plans to reduce their environmental impact. It’s not always clear, however, if these promises reflect a core shift in values – or an effort to curry favor with conscious consumers.
For example, Ikea has long promoted its environmental agenda, including a 2030 initiative for improved forest and biodiversity management. Despite this agenda, Ikea has faced by controversy about its wood procurement practices. In 2021, an investigation revealed it had likely been using illegally-obtained Russian wood in its furniture for several years. And recently, a Romanian NGO filed a complaint alleging the company was clear-cutting without a permit in an old-growth forest.
Food & Drinks
An estimated 10 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans each year. Food and beverage companies are the world’s top plastic producers, but many downplay their contribution to the crisis.
A recent report found that numerous big brands greenwashed their efforts to curb the flow of plastic into the environment. Coca-Cola, for example, was criticized for marketing bottles made with 25% marine plastic while leaving out that it’s still the world’s biggest plastic polluter.
Research indicates that a whopping 91% of the plastic we produce never gets recycled, which means most of it winds up in our landfills and waterways. Companies like Coca-Cola should be working to cut down their total plastic use; instead, they mislead consumers into believing recycling can solve the issue.
Fossil fuel emissions are the driving force behind climate change. And energy industry has been using greenwashing to avoid meaningful change:
- Chevron launches “People Do” campaign featuring its work restoring habitats polluted by its own oil exploration – much of which was required by law.
- BP runs ads focusing on low-carbon investments like solar panels, when 96% of its annual spend is on oil and gas.
- ExxonMobile promotes its use of experimental biofuels, but has not set a company-wide net zero goal that aligns with Paris Agreement targets.
Major banks are the world’s largest financiers of fossil fuels, pumping 4.6 trillion dollars into the industry since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016. Instead of decarbonizing their portfolios, institutions like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank shift the focus to consumers by marketing green investment opportunities.
How to avoid greenwashing
The better we understand greenwashing, the less we’re susceptible to it. Here’s what to keep in mind:
1. Stay alert for common tactics
Consider the seven sins of greenwashing when you encounter environmental claims. Before taking a statement at face value, ask yourself:
- Is this language direct, specific, and backed by evidence?
- Does this benefit address the company’s core environmental impact?
- Do they provide context for terms like sustainable, eco-friendly, or non-toxic?
- Could this benefit have negative effects they don’t mention?
2. Double-check your gut reaction
Greenwashing works because it triggers our emotions. If a marketing campaign makes you feel hopeful, fearful, or guilty, take a closer look. It might be trying to distract you from something more important.
3. Look for trusted certifications
No sustainability certificate is perfect. But there are a few that indicate a company is committed to putting in the work. They include:
- Fair Trade Certified: Sustainable production and ethical labor practices
- USDA Organic Seal: One of the strictest organic certifications in the world.
- Certified B Corp: Meets the highest standards for social and environmental performance
Check out this EcoLabel index for more certifications you can trust.
4. Hold companies publicly accountable
Brands will keep greenwashing as long as we let them get away with it. This impedes the systemic changes we need to help reverse the climate crisis. But we can use our voices to help shift the tide.
Visit Greenwash for resources on companies and industries that make false environmental claims. Hold brands publicly accountable by calling out examples of greenwashing on social media and explaining what’s really going on.
Greenwashing is proof of our collective power
Greenwashing can feel like just another exhausting part of the climate crisis. It’s also proof that our choices matter. As consumers, we have the final say over businesses’ bottom lines. When we use our collective influence to support brands that are genuine in their climate efforts we can help create a more sustainable future.