What is Greenwashing?


If you’ve ever lit up at the sight of a new “green” product only to bring it home and discover that perhaps it’s not as eco-friendly as you thought originally than you’ve likely been the victim of greenwashing. This tactic used by many business to boost their image as a green company has many consumers confused, frustrated, and dismayed. And while greenwashing may bring your business temporary wealth, a good green marketing campaign should have nothing to do with this practice. Designing an environmental branding strategy for your product, service, or company is a great way to bring in business and grow your market share, but it’s no way to garner long-term sustainability and loyalty from your consumer base.

Defining Greenwashing

The Greenwash Guide by Futerra Sustainability Communications describes greenwash this way:

Greenwash is an environmental claim which is unsubstantiated (a fib) or irrelevant (a distraction). Found in advertising, PR or on packaging, and made about people, organisations and products. Greenwash is an old concept, wrapped in a very modern incarnation.

Put a little more bluntly, CorpWatch, a US watchdog group, describes greenwashing as, “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”

In other words, a greenwashing campaign is any marketing effort put forth by a company looking to improve their green credibility without the programs or products to back it up. Though some see the practice of greenwashing as harmless, in actuality it is a destructive influence along the road to a greener society. Not only does it erode the confidence consumers have in purchasing eco-friendly products making it harder for genuine green marketing campaigns to gain traction, it perpetuates a system that is harmful to the environment, human health, and the long term sustainability of our modern world.

What are the Seven Sins of Greenwashing?

Numerous watch groups have popped up in the wake of such egregious marketing ploys in an attempt to educate consumers about the dangers of falling into greenwashing traps. One such organization is TerraChoice Environmental Marketing who has recently developed a campaign called The Seven Sins of Greenwashing as a wake up call to consumers, one and all. Their system of sins is just one way to describe the many ways companies try to pull the green wool over consumer eyes:

  • Hidden trade-off: Setting up a false choice between green attributes, this sin points to the claim that just because a product has one eco-friendly characteristic it is overall a green product. For instance, just because a bottle of water is sold in a corn plastic container doesn’t make it green, especially when you consider the water, resources, energy and waste that result from the production of a single plastic water bottle.
  • No proof: Pretty straightforward, companies will often make green claims without providing proof for the eco-friendly attribute. If a package of paper says it’s recycled but doesn’t give any verification (like the FSC logo), its greenness should be suspect.
  • Vagueness: If you’ve every picked up a bottle of shampoo described as “all natural” or “eco-friendly” but there are no definitions as to what makes the product that way, it’s likely suffering from the sin of vagueness.
  • Worshiping false labels: Some companies use fake green labels by packaging their product (using images or words) in such a way as to give the impression of third-party endorsement. This is worshiping false labels.
  • Irrelevance: In some instances, a company will obscure the issues by bringing up irrelevant facts to make you think it’s green. For instance, if a product claims to be free of CFCs which are now banned by law in many countries, that’s irrelevant since all products of its kind will also be free of CFCs.
  • Lesser of two evils: Perhaps the most obvious greenwashing in this category are green SUVs – if a car company tries to tell you that their huge SUV is green because it uses less fuel than other SUVs, what they’re forgetting to tell you is that compared to smaller fuel-efficient, their “green” SUV is far from efficient.
  • Fibbing: Sadly, some companies resort to outright lying, claiming that their product is endorsed by a certification like FSC or ENERGY STAR when they clearly are not.

It should be obvious by now that greenwashing can take many forms, some easier to identify that others. If your business is interested in launching a green marketing campaign, be wary of these greenwashing traps – they’re easy to fall into! A good environmental brand will have solid proof, transparency, and provide tangible environmental benefits.

Photo Credit: JDog90

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