What is Greenwashing? The Ugly Truth

By Cole Purvis
Factory building dripping in green paint

In recent years, the term “greenwashing” has gained prominence as companies increasingly tout their commitment to environmental sustainability. But what exactly is greenwashing, why does it happen and what implications does it carry?

What is greenwashing?

The United Nations (U.N.) defines greenwashing as an advertising or marketing spin in which an organization deceptively portrays its products, aims and policies as environmentally friendly or “green.” Businesses often engage in greenwashing in an effort to capitalize on the growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products and services. This misleading tactic can manifest in various forms, such as exaggerated claims, vague statements or the strategic use of eco-friendly imagery — like green labels or “natural packaging”— without substantive efforts to back them up.

Why do companies do it?

Companies greenwash for several reasons. First and foremost, the rise of environmental consciousness among consumers has created a lucrative market for sustainable products. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guidelines,” businesses that are eager to tap into this market may resort to greenwashing to enhance their brand image and attract environmentally conscious consumers. In some cases, it serves as a quick fix to divert attention from less-than-stellar environmental practices.

How does it work?

One common way greenwashing occurs is through the misuse of labels and certifications. Some companies may display eco-friendly badges without adhering to the rigorous standards required for such distinctions. This deceptive tactic can mislead consumers who rely on labels as a quick indicator of a product’s environmental impact.

Moreover, the lack of strict standardized guidelines for green marketing allows companies to exploit the ambiguity surrounding sustainability claims. The U.N. finds that, without clear regulations, businesses can make broad assertions about their environmental efforts without fear of substantial consequences. This absence of oversight can contribute to the prevalence of greenwashing across various industries.

The consequences of greenwashing can extend beyond mere consumer deception. According to the U.N., “greenwashing promotes false solutions to the climate crisis that distract from and delay concrete and credible action.” The trust between businesses and consumers lessens and hinders our collective progress toward a more sustainable future.

How to spot greenwashing

Consumers must remain vigilant and informed to identify and combat greenwashing. Companies use a variety of greenwashing tactics in packaging and marketing. Sustain.Life, a carbon accounting platform, has provided some key ones to look out for before your next time out shopping.

Vague “green” language

Be on the lookout for words that sound positive and eco-friendly but have no concrete legal meaning, such as “farm fresh,” “conscious” and “natural.”

Misleading claims

Companies will often nitpick one or a few environmentally friendly aspects of a product or service, ignoring its otherwise harmful nature.

Rebranding a product to look more “natural” or “green”

Products are often altered to physically appear more “green,” oftentimes literally becoming color green. Humans have grown to associate natural colors, including green, brown, beige, etc., with the environment. Brands have been quick to take advantage of this in their packaging and marketing materials.

Scrutinizing product labels, researching company practices and staying informed about recognized environmental certifications can help individuals make more informed choices. Additionally, supporting companies with a proven track record of genuine sustainability efforts can incentivize others to adopt authentic environmentally friendly practices. Keep this in mind and keep your greenwashing radar ready before making your next purchase.

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