What is greenwashing? And, how do you spot it?


‘Asking questions is one of the biggest things we can do as consumers to drive change.’


Simply put, greenwashing is when companies deceptively market their products, services, or company as a whole, as ‘green’ or ‘greener’ than they are in reality. The term was coined back in the 1980s to describe outrageous corporate environmental claims that masked the truth.

Greenwashing came about when most people got their news from television, print or radio and didn’t have the luxury of instant and in-depth fact checking that we do today. In the mid 1980s oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads titled ‘The People Do’ that aimed to highlight their dedication to protecting the environment and its wildlife. Meanwhile Chevron was violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

Greenwashing has developed and become far subtler over the last 20 years, and it’s definitely harder for companies to hide their dirty secrets as much as they used to, but it’s certainly still around. And, as an increasing number of us start to embrace the need for a more ethical and sustainable lifestyle, brands do their best to keep up with the conscious generation using clever, ‘green’ marketing.

Sadly, marketers have caught on to the fact that 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. A figure that, according to Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report, jumps to 72% among millennials. Therefore, a lot of the time the exaggeration of sustainability and ethical practice within a business is marketers stretching the truth in order to reach their target audience.

The fact that companies do this makes it difficult for us as consumers to fully understand the impact of our purchases and the bad practices that we might be unknowingly supporting. And, although it sounds easy enough to avoid the organisations that are guilty of greenwashing, many still hide it well. From small businesses that are trying anything they can to reach new audiences, to big organisations that are trying to improve their negative image, there are numerous brands out there successfully pulling the wool over our eyes.

Sometimes this behaviour isn’t even hidden but we as consumers naturally hear what we want to hear rather than digging deeper to discover unwanted truths. It’s easy to be lured in by your favourite brand when they’re doing something ‘good’ in hope that you don’t need to feel bad about shopping with them. A great example of this is when big, high-street clothing brands bring out ‘eco ranges’. Whilst their attempts to produce clothing in a better way is a step in the right direction, the ranges usually make up a very small percentage of their total product line. And whilst that may be sufficient for some, for us it draws attention to the ‘unethical’ manufacturing of the other 90% of their product range and encourages further questioning into their business practices.

Asking questions is one of the biggest things we can do as consumers to drive change. Not only does it require brands to stand up and admit to their short comings it also helps them to see what we as consumers want from them and how they can keep us happy.

Avoiding greenwashing can be harder than expected. But, as more and more brands put transparency at the forefront of their ethos, it’s getting easier to work out where your money is best spent. 

How to spot greenwashing 

  1. If a company is talking about a specific claim that sounds a little too good to be true they might be exaggerating the truth

  2. If an ad focuses on how well a company has cleaned up an environmental mess make sure you take notice of who/what caused it in the first place. Often the company in question could have done more to prevent this accident from happening at all

  3. Specific words, are they correct or are they being used in the wrong context? Look for the certification labels and research into specific materials

  4. Be aware of images that are misleading, for example nature based images that capture the beauty of the mountains or fresh water lakes when the company sells plastic bottles that end up destroying the very thing they claim to love

  5. The use of words that legally have no meaning, the word ‘natural’ legally does not mean 100% natural and can be used for products that also contain unnatural substances/materials

  6. A big focus on their packaging in their marketing. When it comes to product based businesses changing the packaging is a lot easier than changing the whole supply chain. And, whilst environmentally friendly packaging is a step in the right direction it may also mean there are larger issues that need to be resolved for the brand in question

  7. A company that raves about paying their garment producers minimum wage is usually doing the very least they can and does not deserve credit for ‘improving working conditions. Many countries have a minimum wage, the legal lowest wage a company can pay its workers. This is very different to a living wage – the minimum wage a garments worked should earn in order to feed themselves, their families, to afford rent, healthcare, transport and education

  8. Marketing a small area of the business or a particular product line that is sustainable whilst the rest of the organisation is far from it. Zara are a perfect example of this, their ‘eco/kind’ range sounds great when you hear them talking about it but in actual fact it’s highlighting the fact that the other 90% of their stock isn’t made fairly or sustainably.

Whether you’re doing the food shopping, looking to invest in a new winter coat, or going out for dinner, it’s worth taking a few moments to look into the company in question and find out what they’re truly about. 

Katherine Heath1 Comment