What is greenwashing in business and marketing?

With public concern for the environment rising, brands are making great efforts to meet people’s needs and demands. Sustainability has become the latest buzzword, and organisations that embrace it have more success and a better reputation than those that don’t. If sustainability has a competitive advantage, many businesses want to jump on the bandwagon. However, just because a company seems environmentally friendly doesn’t mean that it is; the popularity of eco-friendliness has brought a significant problem: greenwashing.

In this post, we’ll explore the meaning of greenwashing, including how to identify it and why you should avoid it at all costs.

What is greenwashing?

Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, greenwashing refers to providing misleading or false information to make consumers believe a product or practice is environmentally friendly when it isn’t. In the present context, some brands and companies purposely use greenwashing to capitalise on the public’s growing demand for sustainability, spending more effort trying to appear sustainable than actually helping the planet.

Greenwashing, however, may be challenging to spot. With so much noise around sustainability, it’s essential to cut through greenwashing and differentiate absolute, factual claims from those that are deceitful or untrue. Responsible communications and conscious PR are crucial for organisations to engage audiences authentically.

The seven sins of greenwashing and how to detect them

Unfortunately, greenwashing is more common than we think and is employed by companies of all scales and sizes. In 2009, the marketing firm TerraChoice researched different retailers in North America, Australia and the United Kingdom, concluding that 98% of products advertised as ‘green’ committed at least one of what they dubbed the Seven Sins of Greenwashing. These serve as perfect examples of the deliberately ambiguous ploys some brands resort to trick the public:

The sin of the hidden trade-off

The hidden trade-off involves highlighting an environmental claim or characteristic while covering up other damaging factors. For example, claiming a product is made from recyclable materials while hiding other aspects involved in its fabrication, such as unethical working conditions, toxic waste production or high resource consumption.

The sin of no proof

This one is self-explanatory and one of the most common greenwashing examples. It refers to making sustainability claims without research, credentials or proof of their validity. Companies that resort to this provide limited information on raw materials, supply chains or manufacturing processes.

The sin of vagueness

How often have you seen all-green packaging branded with organic, ethical, eco-friendly, or non-toxic? These are just a few vague terms that make products seem environmentally sound but are not backed up with evidence. Another example is ‘all natural’ products. This term can be misleading, as many naturally occurring substances can be toxic or harmful.

The sin of worshipping false labels

The average consumer is usually not familiarised with environmental certifications and, most times, can’t distinguish an authentic certification from a false one. Many corporations know this and take advantage of it by resorting to paid endorsements or listing labels, certificates or badges that are not backed by a credible authority.

The sin of irrelevance

When brands promote environmental claims that, though true, are completely irrelevant and unrelated to their product or service. A typical example of this is branding a product as ‘CFC-Free’. CFC is an artificial greenhouse gas banned by law since the 1970s.

The lesser of two evils

This is when a company claims to be ‘greener’ than its competitors, even though its products are not safe or environmentally friendly, to begin with. For example, celebrating more environmentally-friendly diesel cars doesn’t make diesel any less harmful. Organic cigarettes are no better than regular ones, and airlines claiming to be less polluting than their competitors doesn’t change the fact that air travel carries a massive carbon footprint.

The sin of fibbing

Fibbing refers to straight-up lies and fake claims, making up facts and statistics for convenience. For example, automobile manufacturers claim some cars produce zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Why greenwashing should be avoided at all costs

Amid the current planetary crisis, businesses need to show interest in the environment and responsibility in handling themselves through their operations and marketing. Greenwashing only promotes further degradation of the planet, allowing companies to keep engaging in unsustainable practices while hiding themselves from the public and avoiding accountability. On the other hand, it may foster wariness and disbelief in consumers, making them avoid sustainable products altogether.

The best way to build trust with your audience is to be completely transparent and engage in conscious communications, backing your claims with the corresponding evidence. Green PR can be a great way to reach the public and communicate your eco-friendly efforts.

If you run a conscious business and want to know how we can help, book a discovery call or get in touch.