What Is Greenwashing? Definition and Examples

Greenwashing
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Greenwashing is a term used to describe situations where companies mislead consumers by claiming to be eco-friendly or sustainable as a marketing scheme rather than as a core principle of their business model. Often, these industries spend more money making themselves appear sustainable than they do implementing actual sustainable measures into their company.

Greenwashing takes advantage of well-intentioned customers who want to make more responsible and mindful choices about the products they buy in an effort to help fight against issues like global pollution or the climate crisis; more often than not, this is achieved by making vague claims about their products to make consumers feel better about buying them.

The government doesn't regulate terms like "natural," "green," and "nontoxic" when it comes to product labels. As such, there are really no rules to differentiate which ingredients or procedures qualify under these terms. Sometimes, a company doesn't even know it is greenwashing its consumers due to a lack of knowledge about what sustainability really entails; or its "eco-friendly" practices may involve tradeoffs that are worse for the environment in the long run.

Greenwashing Definition

In 2015, 66% of consumers said that they were willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013, according to a Nielsen poll on sustainability. By 2019, 73% of global consumers reported that they would change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. The evidence is clear: more and more people are making a conscious effort to minimize their impact on the environment by buying sustainable products.

The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, after he came across a sign at a resort asking guests to help the environment by reusing their towels while on a research trip to Samoa. The sign said that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage on the oceans and reefs. “I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “They were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows.”

Greenwashing is misleading to be sure, but it also keeps environmental issues from getting the recognition they deserve, since greenwashing can direct eco-minded consumers to the wrong kinds of products.

Types of Greenwashing

NETHERLANDS-H&M-ECONOMY-ENVIRONMENT-DEMO
Activists of the group Extinction Rebellion stand in an H&M clothes store window in Amsterdam to denounce the alledged 'greenwashing' strategy of the company.

ANP/AFP / Getty Images

There are plenty of red flags for consumers to look out for while shopping for green products, from unaccredited or uncertified claims, to labels that don't really mean anything. A good example is the term “recyclable;” it is easy for a company to claim that its product has the ability to be recycled, but that doesn’t mean it will be accepted by your local curbside recycling program or even that it will be possible to find a place that will recycle it at all.

Ask yourself if the brand is promoting sustainability as the core to its business model, rather than just as an added benefit. Look for numbers and hard data to back up the claims (if a product claims to be "more energy-efficient," it should also tell you exactly what kind of product it compares to and how that information was measured); a truly sustainable or environmentally friendly business will make it extremely easy to find this information publicly, such as on its website.

In fashion, for instance, we often see words like “recycled materials” or “sustainably made,” rather than actual numbers or quantifiable objectives as to what percentage of its products are made this way or why their methods are more sustainable. Similarly, when a brand promotes using natural materials, consumers would benefit by taking the time to research and understand how these materials are sourced.

Bamboo, for example, is fast-growing and self-regenerating, but turning it into fabric can be a complicated process. Bamboo linen involves combing out the bamboo fibers and spinning them into thread, a pricier but more eco-friendly process; bamboo rayon, on the other hand, is produced through a highly intensive chemical process. Making bamboo rayon can endanger factory workers and pollute the environment through air emissions and wastewater, while about 50% of the resulting chemicals aren’t recovered and go straight into the natural environment.

As a sustainable consumer, it's important to be wary of greenwashing in less-obvious industries, as well, like the tourism industry. Just as is the case with products, travel companies often market themselves as “green” without really doing anything to promote long-term sustainability within their business. Perhaps even worse, often they advertise a service as “green” when it actually benefits themselves. Jay Westerveld's aforementioned resort in Samoa is a good example of this; if the extent of a hotel’s eco-friendly policies ends at asking guests to reuse towels, they are likely just trying to save money on water bills.

If a hotel takes those extra steps to employ sustainable practices such as recycling programs, water conservation, implementing renewable energy sources, and becoming involved in the local community or safeguarding biodiversity, they will almost always list them on their website. Similarly, a truly eco-friendly hotel will have an environmental report that’s been made available to the public, so it's easy to tell if they’ve truly accomplished goals like reducing energy or waste.

The Problem With Greenwashing

Why pay attention to greenwashing? It's simple really: the importance of companies becoming accountable for their actions. The good news is that since greenwashing can be a form of false advertising, it is often considered illegal.

As greenwashing gains more awareness among consumers, we may be seeing more and more lawsuits against the industries that are banking on false “eco-friendly” claims.

In 2010, Fiji water was named in a class-action lawsuit citing that the company had profited by claiming its products were carbon negative-a pretty bold assertion for a company that produces single-use plastic water bottles.

In 2020, the Tide laundry detergent brand was called out for advertising that its Purclean detergent was 100% plant-based, when it was really only 75% plant-based. As a result, the company agreed to modify its plant-based claims that appeared on product labels.

Sometimes, company greenwashing claims can be a little more indirect, like when Google’s Nest thermostats claimed that its competition’s programmable thermostats wasted energy without providing sufficient evidence—though they eventually discontinued the claims. 

As consumers, it is our responsibility to learn how to identify greenwashing, but it is also the company’s responsibility not to mislead their customers.

Examples

VOLKSWAGEN emissions scandal
Greenpeace activists demonstrate at the entrance to the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Wolfsburg, central Germany,. AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

There are many companies, brands, and products that are genuinely conscious of the environment, and the numbers are growing (and while some will say that there’s no such thing as a truly sustainable product, some products definitely have less environmental impact than others). However, many big brands continue to exploit consumers with trendy buzzwords and flashy marketing budgets. 

Volkswagen

In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency found that Volkswagen had been cheating in emission tests by using a “defeat device” in engine software that makes cars appear less polluting than they really are. At least 482,000 diesel cars in the United States were emitting 40 times more toxic fumes than the legal limit.

In 2017, Volkswagen pleaded guilty to three criminal felony counts and agreed to pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty. The infamous event didn’t just mark one of the biggest scandals in automotive history, but also helped bring greenwashing into the spotlight.

Nestle

Nestle has developed a bad reputation for greenwashing and unethical behavior over the years, from lacking transparency in its Nespresso coffee pod recycling program to paying $200 a year to pump water near Flint, Michigan, while its residents went without clean drinking water.

In 2018, the company announced that it would be turning all of its plastic packaging 100% recyclable and reusable by 2025, and almost immediately, environmentalists began calling them out for doing too little too late. Most notably, Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Graham Forbes was quick to point out the fact that the company is still one of the biggest producers of plastic pollution on Earth, saying:


“Nestlé’s statement on plastic packaging (...) is full of ambiguous or nonexistent targets, relies on ‘ambitions’ to do better, and puts the responsibility on consumers rather than the company to clean up its own plastic pollution. A company of Nestlé’s size should be setting a strong standard to actually move toward the reduction — and eventual phasing out — of throwaway plastics. It should know by now that recycling efforts are not going to clean up our oceans, waterways, and communities. On the contrary, the company’s business as usual will only accelerate plastic pollution.”
View Article Sources
  1. "The Sustainability Imperative: New Insights on Consumer Expectations." Nielsen Global Sustainability Report.

  2. "A 'Natural' Rise in Sustainability Around the World." The Nielsen Company.

  3. "Bamboo and Rayon." Patagonia.

  4. "Learn About Volkswagen Violations." Environmental Protection Agency.