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Greenwashing: All you Need to Know in 2024

Greenwashing describes the situation where a company makes misleading environmental claims. But what is the purpose of greenwashing?

You've probably heard about green products. They're all over the internet and the shelves of our stores with labels that say things like “eco friendly”, “all-natural”, “organic”, etc ... The list of environmental claims goes on. But, these terms are not always meaningful and unfortunately, most of these so-called green claims are not much more than marketing jargon.

Why have misleading environmental claims become a problem? Well, as more and more consumers become aware of the risks of climate change and try to adopt more environmentally conscious behaviours, businesses sensing opportunity are starting to jump on the green marketing bandwagon.

Just because the label says that a product is environmentally conscious, or eco friendly, doesn't mean it's necessarily true.

Unfortunately, some companies are trying to unfairly profit from the green marketing trend, and are actually making false claims. They market a product (or service) as environmentally friendly, or created using sustainable practices, but in reality these environmental marketing claims are totally fabricated. This is whats known as greenwashing.

👉 In this article we'll take a closer look at what greenwashing means, why it's harmful and how companies can avoid making misleading environmental claims.

What is greenwashing (or green sheen)?

Greenwashing, meaning

What does greenwashing mean? In simple terms, the term greenwashing (sometimes "green sheen") describes the situation where a company makes misleading environmental claims, leading their customers to believe that their product or service is eco-friendly. Even though the company claims that their products are environmentally friendly or that their practices are sustainable, they're not.

In fact, the only thing they've changed is their marketing strategy: the company uses environmental claims, to deceive their customers who are trying to be environmentally conscious and want to do their part by buying ethical products. 

What is the purpose of greenwashing?

The goal of greenwashing is to make profit, not to actually benefit the environment in any way. Companies that use greenwashing tactics to market their products or services are simply taking advantage of the growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products. Their only aim is to sell their product or service, and green marketing helps them to achieve this.

Consumer trends show us that people with more green concern want to reduce their carbon footprint, and they're doing this by changing their purchasing habits. Instead of buying what they've always bought they're swapping out these products in favour of those with environmental benefits. Certain companies are taking advantage of this, and using it as an opportunity.

What is the difference between greenwashing and green marketing?

‍Greenwashing is obviously different from green marketing, which refers to companies that sell products or services based on legitimate environmental claims.

One of the biggest issues met by customers is that it can be really difficult to differentiate green marketing from greenwashing, responsible company from misleading company, etc.

This is the reason why some countries now legally condemn greenwashing, in order to protect consumers and discourage companies from developing an environmental communication without strong basis.

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5 examples of greenwashing

‍Greenwashing does not refer to one type of practice. Here are some examples of greenwashing your should know.

1. Image power

Images are powerful, so powerful in fact that they can sway consumers into buying a specific product.

The use of powerful images is one the favoured marketing techniques of companies who practice greenwashing. Whether it's imaging on TV adverts, in magazines, or simply on the product itself, companies use images relating to ecology, nature, animals etc. to give the impression that they're environmentally conscious, eco-friendly, or socially responsible.

One example of green marketing that's not so obvious? Car brands love to shoot their car averts in wild landscapes, giving the impression that the car is environmentally friendly.

2. Misleading labels

Another greenwashing technique employed by companies is to use misleading labels on products to mislead consumers - how many times have you seen something in the supermarket that claims to have environmental benefits, or to be eco-friendly? Sadly, in a lot of cases these are false claims and the label has not been verified by a third-party who is authorised to judge the quality of the products sold.

Often these companies will declare that their product is "certified" as being natural, sustainable ... or whatever environmental marketing claim the company chooses to employ. Sadly, these assertions are often totally fabricated claims. 

That being said, misleading labels with false environmental claims are also one of the most easily identifiable greenwashing techniques. One of the biggest clues is when the company fails to mention that the certification has been verified by a third party. So keep an eye out for a reliable third party certification on the packaging!

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3. Red Herring

No, we're not talking about a fish, we're talking about another greenwashing technique! This greenwashing method is aiming at diverting the attention of the consumer. The company will try to highlight a specific aspect of their product, which can be described as ethical and sustainable. But what they're really doing is drawing the consumers attention away from aspects of the product that have a less than desirable environmental impact.

In other words, these brands try to capitalise on one part of their offering which has a genuine environmental claim while ignoring the other aspects of the product which are often destructive to the environment.

Most of the time, this technique is applied to the packaging of the product: the packaging may be made from recycled materials or it may be recyclable, but the content of the product itself has no environmental attributes.

4. Irrelevant claims

You sometimes hear brands claiming that their product does not contain a certain substance, which would be something worth mentioning if it actually set their product apart from the competition. But more often than not, it's a case of green advertising, and ultimately greenwashing.

Too many companies try to capitalise on embellishing these "achievements" to push their product. But in cases where the ingredient or material is legally prohibited, then the product does not have any more benefit than its competitors because they are also not allowed to include it. Mentioning the achievement on the packaging is a case of greenwashing and has the ultimate aim of misleading consumers.

5. Approximative terminology

This use of approximative terminology is a common greenwashing practice. With the emergence of environmentally conscious products, many brands have decided to self-market their products as “green”. However, a lot of the time this is misleading. Companies deliberately use approximative terminology, or vague claims to lead consumers to believe that their products conform to high environmental standards. 

By avoiding being too specific with the terminology of their product's green claims, companies minimise the risk of being accused of making false claims or misleading consumers.

This is why you may often find products marked as “environmentally friendly”, a claim that is deliberately hard to confirm or deny.

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Greenwashing marketing, examples

Cosmetic companies

Many cosmetic companies promote ‘natural’ products. Unfortunately, this is often baseless and nothing more than false advertising.

One example we often see is cosmetics claiming to be “paraben and silicone free” - two harmful chemicals. The problem is that these components are sometimes replaced by other toxic substances as depicted in the table below.

Automobile companies

There are many examples of false advertising in the auto industry.

Just think of the number of advertisements and marketing campaigns featuring their latest vehicle criss-crossing wild and/or heavenly landscapes… But do these cars respect these wild and/or heavenly landscapes? More often than not, these vehicles are probably doing harm to the environment.

👉 We must not forget that the car’s carbon footprint is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world.

In 2015, the Dieselgate revealed that the Volkswagen group was using fraudulent software, which reduced particulate emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and CO2 produced by its cars during certification tests.

Clothing industry

In 2019, H&M was accused of greenwashing on account of a collection entitled “Conscious”, purporting to offer clothing made from recycled materials.

Problem: these materials represented only a tiny part of the clothing item as a whole. In addition, the proportion of the collection was negligible compared to the overall production of the H&M brand.

Finally, let's keep in mind that brands like H&M, whose collections are constantly being renewed to encourage consumption (the whole concept of fast-fashion) contributes massively to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Why is greenwashing bad?

Greenwashing hinders the efforts to fight climate change

Greenwashing is not simply a case of bad business ethics. Companies who mislead consumers or exaggerate the extent of their environmental friendliness are actually causing harm.

Beyond the fact that they're flat-out lying to their consumers, companies guilty of greenwashing hinder all the efforts made to reduce the environmental impact of human activity.

While many people are trying to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by selecting environmentally preferable products, switching to renewable energy sources, choosing a sustainable brand over their usual purchase etc. Greenwashing companies impede on all this effort and contribute to the perpetuation of an unsustainable model, responsible for irremediable damage to our ecosystem.

As a reminder, the Paris Agreement ― signed in 2015 ― aims to keep the world's temperature rise below 1,5 °C. This is not a whim or a random figure: achieving this goal is absolutely crucial if we want to limit the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

The situation is critical: many scientists believe that this threshold could be reached by 2030 if we don't act now.

Needless to say, there is no time to waste. Likewise, each action counts– and any initiative to undermine these valuable efforts pushes our society closer to the brink of disaster. Think we are exaggerating? Think again. The IPCC synthesis - published on March 20th - makes this incentive clear.

Greenwashing harms companies' reputation

Finally, if the climate emergency doesn't move you, know that greenwashing is a highly damaging practice for your company itself - regardless of any ecological considerations.

In fact, as consumers are becoming more and more demanding when it comes to brand transparency, and trying to fool them could be extremely costly. If your business is caught greenwashing, you could forever loose the confidence of your prospects and customers, who are more vigilant than ever when it comes to green marketing the environmental impact of a company.

Be careful: with the emergence of social media, dissatisfied consumers are now able to share their experience on the web. If news of your perceived greenwashing finds its way onto the internet, your company could be tainted with a bad image. Even worse: your brand identity could be totally destroyed by greenwashing. You have been warned.

Is greenwashing illegal in the United States?

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) strives for protecting consumers and legally ensuring a fair marketplace. Regarding greenwashing, they created a voluntary guidelines to help people and companies in differentiating green products from greenwashed products.

👉 These guidelines give the Federal Trade Commission the right to prosecute false and misleading claims.

Moreover, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is proposing a new rule - known as the Climate Disclosure Rule - which would force public companies to disclose their environmental impact.

This is a turning point in the US legal framework regarding environmental marketing claims. More and more attention is paid to green advertising, but also to the sustainability of companies' business operations.

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7 tips to prevent greenwashing at your company

1. Make your green claims clear

There is no better way to backup your claims than by providing figures. Give up sentences like, "Partially made with organic cotton". Instead, it's best to say, "Made with 20% organic cotton".

Do not feel ashamed of your environmental performances, as soon as your company is really - and concretely - working to improve them. Ecological transition is a long term journey that cannot be done in a flash. Especially in a world which based its entire consumption and production model on the use of fossil fuels.

Make credible claims, gain more sustainable outcomes, and less angry consumers' (or environmental groups) reactions.

2. Provide evidence

This is the first and foremost step to prevent from falling subject to greenwashing. If you want to avoid greenwashing accusations or attest to your statements, simply provide evidence to back up any green claims.

For example, if your product or service has been evaluated by an approved organisation, prove it. Provide appropriate documentation to prove your green practices or the environmental attribute of your product. Make it easily accessible for your clients or any stakeholder who wants to take to a look.

In fact, if you have that evidence, you'd better share it. To be clear, today, any initiative to make an organisation more transparent is generally well received by consumers who are actively searching for sustainable brands and environmentally sustainable products. So, don't hesitate: communicating before being urged to do so is the best course of action for an environmentally responsible company.

3. Tell the truth

The fact that you don't have any environmental or ethical certification doesn't mean you have to hide your product. Transitioning to a more sustainable business model doesn't happen overnight. It takes organisation, planning and investment. If you need to review the composition of your product, don't expect to be able to make all the desired changes quickly.

What's important in this situation is that you avoid telling green lies and avoid greenwashing practices. Tell your consumers the truth! Although many of them are seeking to adopt more socially responsible patterns of consumption by purchasing green products, they are also very wary when it comes to brand transparency.

So, if your company is starting to move towards a sustainable business model publish it! Create a section on your website that details your company's corporate social responsibility and tell your consumers all about the fact that you're taking steps to address environmental issues. This is a very positive step and consumers will respond well to the fact that you're moving ahead with more sustainable practices.

4. Carry out your carbon footprint assessment

Greenhouse gas emissions are not just that fault of oil companies and air pollution from cars - we all emit CO2. It's unavoidable. Moreover, the greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon, which ensures Earth's temperature is compatible with human life. ‍

However, the excess of greenhouse gas emissions ― produced by human activities ― accentuates this phenomenon, increasing the world's average temperature and jeopardising our ecosystem. 

So instead of beating ourselves up and using greenwashing practices to make our companies look better, let's focus on remedying the situation. With this in mind, there's no better way to avoid the trap of greenwashing, than by communicating openly on subject. 

This is the approach of responsible companies, who choose to publicise the conclusions of their personalised carbon footprint assessment. The idea? To be transparent with their consumers, while adopting a constructive approach. 

The objective is to identify the main sources of their GHG emissions, before presenting the action plan developed, in order to reduce or offset those emissions. This display of environmental responsibility is well viewed by consumers and employees alike.

Remember, the goal isn't to be perfect. The key is action and honesty. No greenwashing!

5. Engage your suppliers!

In many cases, the majority of a company's greenhouse gas emissions come from its Scope 3 emissions - the indirect emissions related to its value chain.

In this context, if you want to prove to your customers that you are really trying to tackle your environmental impact, you should focus on your supply chain first: ask for information about your suppliers' corporate environmental performance (for their carbon assessment if they already did it) and start optimizing your procurement strategy.

We know this is a huge task, and that's why Greenly's sustainable procurement service offers its clients to make it easy. Our experts take care of assessing their supply chains and identify opportunities to meet their decarbonization goals.

6. Be very cautious with 'carbon offsets' claims

As a reminder, carbon offsetting deals with balancing out one’s carbon footprint thanks to investments in an environmental project.

These projects which often takes place in developing countries aim at reducing carbon emissions. 

However, it is very important not to take carbon offsets as "rights to pollute". Indeed, to be efficient, an efficient carbon offsetting strategy must start with reducing the company's carbon footprint to the minimum.

Concretely, carbon offsets' goal is only to balance a company's residual emissions - those they really cannot avoid.

In this context, be really careful while using the argument of carbon offsetting. Make sure that you properly completed a carbon assessment and started a decarbonization process, before starting to talk about carbon offsetting.

7. Ask for support to communicate about your green products or your green strategy

Global warming, environmental protection and business ethics have become really sensitive topics. On its side, ecological transition is a technical topic.

If you do not feel comfortable communicating about all of these, do not hesitate to ask for the help of an expert.

All of Greenly's customers are offered a complete communication kit, with the main language elements, in order to make them able to communicate properly about their environmental action.

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Maybe we should talk?

Has this article on greenwashing inspired you to take action? Or perhaps it's simply piqued your interest? If you want to learn more and begin your transition toward a sustainable model, the Greenly team is here to answer all your questions.

Contact them without further delay and ask for your personalised carbon assessment.

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