Reputation Defenders

What is Greenwashing?

What is Greenwashing?
Brad Withers

8 min

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What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company uses marketing tactics to make itself look good without actually doing anything to improve the environment.

The term was coined in 1986 by New York Times writer Charles Lewis in his book "Greenwash." He wrote about how some hotel chains were touting their environmentally friendly practices, encouraging guests to reuse towels rather than wash them. But he found those same hotels had no plans to install washing machines in guest rooms, which would have saved energy and water.

Over the next few decades, the concept grew into a broader definition of companies promoting themselves as being eco-friendly even though they weren't. For example, many car manufacturers claimed to be producing fuel-efficient vehicles but kept their designs the same over the years. And some companies claimed to be reducing waste but just recycled old products.

In recent years, there have been more examples of companies trying to pass off their actions as green. Some companies have tried to convince consumers that they're protecting wildlife habitats by selling products like bottled water. Others have marketed themselves as recyclers, even though they don't recycle much of anything.

Greenwashing is when a brand claims to care about something without intending to follow through. There are several types of greenwashing, including:

  1. False advertising – When a company makes a claim that isn't true. For example, saying you use recycled materials when you don't.
  2. Misleading marketing – When a company uses marketing tactics that mislead customers. For example, they claim to offer environmentally friendly products when they don't. Or making promises about how much energy a product saves without disclosing the full cost of electricity.
  3. It was lying about impacts – When a company doesn't disclose information about the impact of its actions—for example, failing to mention that its products contain toxic chemicals—or not informing customers about the amount of water used to produce a product.
  4. Disinformation – When a company spreads false information about itself or others. For example, they are spreading rumors about competitors or misleading facts about the environment.
  5. Deception – When a company deliberately misleads people. For example, falsely labeling a product as eco-friendly when it isn't. Or lying about the safety of a product.
  6. Manipulation – When a company tries to manipulate public opinion. For example, trying to convince people that their products are safe when they're not. Or convincing people that their products are better than those of their competitors.

Don't believe everything you see

Greenwashing is a type of false advertising where businesses try to make themselves look good by presenting a positive image of their product or brand. This is done through marketing strategies such as putting up fake reviews online, making claims about how eco-friendly their products are, or even just using pretty pictures.

The problem with greenwashing is that it sometimes means something other than what it seems. There are many different ways that companies can market themselves as being "green." For example, some companies may use images of lush grass, clean river, and other green-themed images on their products or advertisements to give the impression that they're doing something to benefit the environment. However, they may still be causing harm to the planet because they're producing products out of plastic, which is a major contributor to ocean pollution.

Another way that companies can greenwash is by claiming that their products are eco-friendly without actually proving them. They might say things like, "We don't use any harmful chemicals," or "Our packaging is recyclable." These statements aren't necessarily true. Companies could use toxic substances in their manufacturing process or materials that are difficult to recycle.

Words can be misleading.

The words eco-friendly, natural, vegan, gluten-free, fair trade, recycled, and many others are often used by businesses to describe products that aren't necessarily good for the environment. These phrases are commonly used to sell us something we don't want. They're called greenwashing, and they're meant to trick consumers into thinking that a product is greener than it is.

Greenwashing happens every day, and there are plenty of examples. Here are just a few:

  • A clothing brand sells clothes that claim to be "made from sustainable fibers." But what does that even mean? Is it true? Probably not.
  • A food manufacturer claims that their products contain no artificial flavors or colors. But do they? Again, probably not.
  • A cosmetics company touts how many times their products are tested on animals. But did they test them on humans too? Probably not.

There are lots of ways to tell whether a product is truly eco-friendly. You can look up the ingredients online, check the packaging, read customer reviews and talk to the seller. If you see anything suspicious, ask questions. Only buy if you know what you're getting yourself into.

The statistics need to be added up.

A recent European Union report found that many companies make green claims without having enough data to back them up. Companies often claim that their products are environmentally friendly, even though there isn't enough evidence to prove it.

In fact, according to the report, 42% of green product claims were exaggerated or false, while in over half of cases, companies couldn't provide facts to back up the claims they made about their green efforts. Often numbers to support green efforts are created by the company itself or entities that, in truth, were supported by the corporation, such as trade associations or NGOs.

Be wary of self-produced statistical information that comes from something other than independent sources. This can be what is referred to as "astroturfing." Astroturfers try to look like real grassroots movements, but they're funded by corporations looking to influence public opinion.

What is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is a term used to describe a practice where a corporation creates a fake grassroots campaign to influence public opinion. Companies use paid employees to post online comments, write blogs, and organize protests. These activities are meant to look like they are coming from regular people rather than the company itself.

Walmart was embroiled in such a controversy when a series of medial social posts and a blog were posted about two people traveling across the United States and visiting store locations. The posts claimed the pair had visited every Walmart location in the nation. The trip took place over three months, and the travelers never went into each store.

An American wrote the posts For Prosperity group funded by the conservative Koch brothers. The organization is well-known for funding anti-environmental campaigns and promoting climate change denial.

Greenwashing scandals

Exxon Mobil, one of the world's largest oil companies, has been accused of continuing pollution and lobbying to change environmental laws in its favor while putting up a façade of caring about the environment, according to a report published by Greenpeace.

The report found that the company continues to use misleading tactics, such as claiming to care about climate change while spending money lobbying against policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the most well-known examples of straight-up lying came in 2015 when Volkswagen admitted to installing software on nearly 11 million vehicles worldwide, allowing it to cheat on emission tests.

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller resigned over the scandal, and the company paid $15 billion in settlements and fines.

In 2016, the company was caught again trying to mislead consumers about diesel emissions.

And earlier this month, the company was fined another $2.8 billion for violating US air quality rules.

So what's stopping greenwashing?

The term "free range," used to describe eggs laid by hens allowed to roam outdoors, doesn't necessarily mean anything. And while some consumers think they're buying something healthier because of the label, others see it as marketing hype.

There are few federal laws governing the term "organic." But companies still need to try to cash in on the buzzword.

Some companies say they've been selling free-range eggs since the 1970s, but the USDA formally recognized the practice in 2002. The agency says about 80% of egg producers sell free-range eggs.

But the USDA doesn't regulate what the term means. Instead, it relies on voluntary agreements among farmers and egg processors to ensure that standards are met.

And while the agency requires that eggs sold under the organic label come from hens raised without antibiotics, hormones, or added growth promoters, it doesn't specify whether the birds must spend part of their day outside.

The USDA says it doesn't track how many farms meet the criteria for organic certification, but the agency does keep records of violations.

For example, in 2016, the USDA fined one farm $1 million for failing to provide enough outdoor space for laying hens.

Why you shouldn't greenwash

Greenwashing happens when a company tries to convince consumers that it is doing something good for society while engaging in harmful activities to people and the environment. Greenwashing is often done by small businesses trying to compensate for a lack of resources. However, there are many ways to avoid getting caught greenwashing. Here are some tips on how to avoid being exposed:

  • Don't lie about what you sell. If you say you sell eco-friendly products, don't try to hide the fact that you sell plastic bags or Styrofoam cups.
  • Make sure your product is truly eco-friendly. For example, if you claim to be a vegan restaurant, don't serve meat dishes.
  • Be transparent about your practices. Tell customers where your products come from, whether they are recyclable, biodegradable, etc., and why you think those things matter.
  • Know your audience. If you are selling to children, don't tell them that your toys are safe for kids because they contain no lead paint. Instead, explain why it is important that toys aren't painted with toxic chemicals.
  • Get permission. Before you start making claims about your products, ask your clients if they want to hear about them. They might be interested in knowing, but they might just be looking for marketing speak.
  • Keep track of your progress. Once you begin claiming to be eco-friendly, keep track of your efforts and see how well you are doing. This way, you can prove to your customers that you are indeed working towards becoming more sustainable.

How can you avoid greenwashing as a business owner?

Greenwashing happens when companies try to sell themselves as environmentally friendly without actually being so. Some companies even go out of their way to mislead consumers about how much energy they consume and what they do to reduce waste.

In many cases, businesses claim to care about the environment while doing things like producing products that harm the planet. They might say one thing about their product or service but do something completely different behind closed doors. This is called greenwashing.

When people see misleading claims in advertisements, they think less of the brand. If you want to avoid greenwashing, here are some tips for ensuring your marketing doesn't fall into this trap.

  1. Be Honest. If you're trying to convince someone to buy your product or service, don't lie about how eco-friendly it is. You could end up hurting your reputation and losing customers.
  2. Understand Your Audience. You know how important it is to understand your audience when creating content for social media. When writing ads, it's just as important to understand your target market. What concerns them most? How do they view the world around them? These questions help you craft messages that resonate with your audience.
Updated

November 23, 2022

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