Explained: What Is Greenwashing?

One of the major motives of greenwashing is to manipulate public opinion to sway consumer markets.

Climate Change
7 min read
 Explained: What Is Greenwashing?

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  • Greenwashing is a term commonly used to indicate deceptive marketing and advertising tactics to deceive stakeholders into believing that a particular product is environmentally friendly.

  • One of the major motives of greenwashing is to create public confusion and manipulate public opinion to sway consumer markets.

  • Currently, strong backlashes in public opinion against greenwashing have been keeping this practice somewhat under control. Strong social accountability and a tripartite system have been suggested as ways to curb greenwashing.


Greenwashing refers to “the practice of making products, activities, or policies seem more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than they actually are,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the oldest English dictionaries, which recently included “greenwash” as a new word in the dictionary.

Essentially, it consists of two behaviours – one, suppress negative information regarding a product/activity/policy’s environmental performance; and two, expose positive information about the environmental performance.

Another definition of greenwashing also adds that the term could describe the practice of companies investing more time and money in marketing their products as ‘green’ rather than genuinely ensuring that those products are truly sustainable.

The term is commonly used to refer to deceptive marketing and advertising tactics used by some corporate industries to deceive stakeholders into believing that a particular product is environmentally friendly. In most examples of greenwashing, the claims made about the ‘green’ product tend to be highly exaggerated or in some cases, completely unsubstantiated.


How Did the Term ‘Greenwashing’ Emerge?

‘Greenwashing’ is a play on the word ‘whitewashing’ which means misleading people with the use of facts, half-truths, and fiction to conceal realities. Environmentalist Jay Westerveld is credited with coining the term ‘greenwashing’ in 1986 in a term paper on multiculturalism. He was writing about his experience at a sprawling resort in Fiji, where he saw a note asking customers to pick up their towels. 

“It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage.”
Jay Westerveld, Environmentalist, 2016 article for The Guardian.

“They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment.’ But I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs. They were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows,” he had said claiming that by encouraging guests to reuse their towels, the resort not only saved on laundry bills but also labelled itself ‘environmentally friendly.’

Hiding negative information regarding a product, activity, or an environmental policy are examples of greenwashing. In a well-known case of greenwashing, Volkswagen admitted in 2015 that it cheated on emissions tests by installing devices in its cars that could recognise when emissions tests were being conducted.

Photo: Rameshng/Wikimedia Commons.

By the early 90s, as consumers were gradually becoming more aware of sustainability concerns, the term also became popular. ‘Greenwashing’ was popularly used to describe some of the unethical practices being used by companies to label themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’. In 1999, ‘greenwashing’ was officially included in the Oxford English Dictionary.


How Is Greenwashing Done?

In 2007, the advertising consultancy, TerraChoice Marketing (now acquired by UL, a global independent safety science company), described what it called the “seven sins of greenwashing” or types of misleading sustainability claims.

The list begins with “hidden trade-off” where a company claims that a product is ‘green’ based on extremely narrow attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.

For example, paper may not necessarily be environmentally preferable to plastic only because it is biodegradable and comes from a sustainably harvested forest. There might be a few other environmental concerns in paper-making such as greenhouse gas emissions and the use of toxic chemicals for bleaching etc.

Another claim is of “no proof” where a company’s claims cannot be easily verified or are unsupported by reliable third-party certifications.

For example, if a product is labelled ‘environmentally more preferable’, it needs to be justified with clear language such as ‘contains 50% recycled content’ compared to a competitor as assessed by a certifying authority.

“Vagueness” is another type of claim made to mislead customers using poor or broad definitions. For example, ‘all-natural’ is not necessarily ‘eco-friendly’ since environmental poisons such as formaldehyde, arsenic, mercury, or uranium are ‘all-natural’ but toxic in nature.

In another example, a package containing a product may be labelled ‘recyclable’ without clear reference to whether the packaging or the product is recyclable. Such claims are deceptive if any part of either the package or the product, other than minor, incidental components, cannot be recycled.

Another type of greenwashing is “worshiping false labels” where claims through words or images are made to give the impression of a third-party endorsement although none exists.

The list also includes “irrelevance” and “lesser of the two evils” as two separate types of greenwashing. Irrelevant claims are those that may be technically true, but unimportant or unhelpful to consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.

For example, a product that is labelled as ‘has 50% more recycled content than before’ may now have 3% recycled material, as compared to the 2% it had before. Although technically true, the claim conveys a false impression that the manufacturer has significantly increased the use of recycled material in the product. 

“Lesser of the two evils” is a type of claim that may be true within the product category but distracts consumers from the greater environmental impact of those products as a whole.

For example, advertising a particular brand of sport-utility vehicles as being more fuel-efficient than others.

Another example is the promotion of natural gas as a ‘cleaner fuel’ than coal, although the costs of extracting natural gas through methods such as fracking are hugely damaging to the environment.

Other than these, “fibbing” is another “sin” of greenwashing, in the list by TerraChoice Marketing, where the claims are simply false.

American politician Ed Gillespie later added three more types of claims to this list – suggestive pictures, best in class, and gobbledygook. “Suggestive pictures” is where images are used to imply a green impact when in fact none exists. An example of this would be an image of plants/flowers emerging from the exhaust pipe of a vehicle.

Claims in the “best in class” category, declare that the brand is slightly more eco-friendly than the rest of the industry, even though the industry itself is highly unsustainable.

This is very similar to the “lesser of two evils” type of claims. “Gobbledygook” refers to a strategy where a brand uses jargon to confuse consumers. For example, ‘locally grown/organic’ food products may still be produced in ways that harm the environment and degrade the soil.


Who Is Guilty of Greenwashing?

As per an anonymous survey conducted for Google Cloud, roughly two-thirds of CEOs from U.S.-based companies question their companies’ sustainability initiatives. Most global companies including international giants such as Nestle, Unilever, Amazon, Ikea, and Coca Cola have been accused of greenwashing.

Nestle’s and Unilever’s most recent forays into greenwashing include claims about the increased use of recycled material in packaging and gaining ‘plastic neutrality’.

Both companies have teamed up with the cement industry and are excavating landfills in southeast Asia to use plastics as refuse-derived fuels in a bid to claim to be ‘plastic neutral’. However, it has been seen often, that many claims made by companies as solutions to plastic waste and pollution are either misleading or unsustainable.

Solutions to plastic pollution is a common topic for greenwashing. While biodegradable plastics, in theory, can shorten the plastic lifecycle and are better for the environment, there are certain conditions under which this plastic breaks down and in the natural environment, many factors are not controllable, and a controlled environment is not always available.

Photo: Mongabay-India.

Apart from ‘solutions to plastic pollution’, ‘reduction in carbon emissions’ is another topic commonly used for greenwashing – one that automobile and oil companies are famous for.

In a well-known case of greenwashing, Volkswagen admitted in 2015 that it cheated on emissions tests by installing devices in its cars that could recognise when emissions tests were being conducted. These devices also changed the performance of the car to lower emissions during the tests.

The latest comprehensive report on the climate claims made by oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP, states that most of their claims are greenwashing.

In addition, seized internal emails have revealed that these companies’ public commitments to net carbon zero goals are meant to be ‘green’ eyewash.

And it’s not just industries. Governments have also been accused of greenwashing when the COP26 was accused of being a ‘greenwashing event’ as climate activists argued that the current systems of carbon offsetting were just tactics being used by polluters to avoid real emissions cuts.


How is greenwashing harmful and what can be done about it?

One of the major motives of greenwashing is to create public confusion and manipulate public opinion to sway consumer markets. But is that likely to have a significant impact on the environment or public health?

Take for example, a 2008 advertisement from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council that claimed it was eco-friendly. The ad stated that the palm oil plantations “help our planet breathe and give homes to hundreds of species of flora and fauna.”

But critics of the ad pointed out that palm oil plantations are associated with deforestation, loss of rainforest species and habitats, pollution from burning to clear land, and destruction of flood buffer zones along the rivers. Several oil plantation executives distanced themselves from the advertisement video.

A palm oil plantation in Malaysia. In a 2008 advertisement, Malaysian Palm Oil Corporation claimed that palm oil plantations can help the planet breathe and harbour hundreds of species of flora and fauna.

Photo: Energieexperten/Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, strong backlashes in public opinion against greenwashing have been keeping this practice somewhat under control. Strong social accountability and a tripartite system, consisting of an organisation, a regulatory authority, and a third party (made up of stakeholders, civil society members, NGOs, etc.) have been suggested as ways to curb greenwashing.

The inclusion of the third party protects against regulatory capture and allows for independent monitoring and verification of data to ensure that industries report on claims accurately. However, as of now, such structured systems to reign in greenwashing are yet to be developed in most countries.

(This article was originally published at Mongabay. It has been republished here with permission.)

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