Many of us have heard of greenwashing, but how many of us actually know what it is, and the responsibility we as marketers have to ensure that we’re not guilty of it?
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to the deceptive marketing and communication tactics used by businesses and brands to portray themselves as environmentally friendly and socially responsible, even when their practices and products may not genuinely align with sustainable values.
It involves misleading claims and exaggerated statements about a company’s eco-friendly initiatives, aiming to create a positive public perception and capitalize on the growing demand for eco-conscious products.
Essentially, greenwashing is a manipulative strategy that seeks to exploit consumers’ desire to make environmentally responsible choices, making it crucial for individuals to be discerning and informed to avoid falling for false claims.
The Origins of Greenwashing
Do you know where ‘greenwashing’ comes from?
The use of the term started when environmental activist Jay Westerveld was staying in a hotel in Fiji. In the hotel bathroom, he saw a note with a green recycling symbol on it. It said:
“Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, “I will use it again.” A towel on the floor means, “Please replace.” Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.”
Unconvinced by the claim, the idea stuck in Westerveld’s head until 1986, and he ended up writing a critical essay—the first place where the term ‘greenwashing’ was actually used.
Side note: the real reason why these notes exist in hotel bathrooms isn’t part of a wider environmental strategy; in fact, they’re just designed to cut costs.
However, it was way before this situation and Jay’s essay, that greenwashing had been used as a marketing method.
The Rise of Corporate Greenwashing
Despite Westerveld’s essay in 1986, the general public wasn’t aware of the term until very recently. Many people often feel foolish when they are deceived by corporate greenwashing, but is it really an unsuspecting customer’s fault?
Early offenders in the greenwashing sphere include the following:
Did you know that the term ‘carbon footprint’ stems from a marketing campaign BP ran with the help of Ogilvy? Back in 2005, the polluting giant ran a campaign asking people to calculate their own carbon footprint—pushing the onus on the individual rather than corporations like BP.
Another oil company guilty of early-stage greenwashing, Chevron actually won awards for their greenwashing campaigns. In the mid-1980s they ran TV and print ads with the aim to convince the public that they have green intentions as part of their ‘People Do’ campaign.
They continued to greenwash through the years, attempting to repair their public perception with the “We Agree” campaign. The ads didn’t directly address their poor environmental record, nor the billion-dollar lawsuit that they were facing at the time.
Keep America Beautiful
Founded in 1953, Keep America Beautiful was founded by The American Can Co. and the Owens Illinois Glass Company. It was later supported by brands such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company. Aired in 1971, their infamous Crying Indian commercial was not only a form of greenwashing, but it was also guilty of being culturally appropriative when it was discovered that the protagonist in the commercial wasn’t played by a Native American person, but instead an Italian-American.
It’s not just campaigns between the 70s and mid-10s that have been guilty of greenwashing. Brands that have recently been guilty of greenwashing include Ryanair, Innocent Drinks, Oatly, Ikea, H&M, Unilever, HSBC, Hyundai, Zalando, Decathlon, Boohoo, Asda, and ASOS.
In 2021, a global review coordinated by The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) found that of the random websites reviewed, 40% were making green claims which could be misleading to customers.
Differentiating Greenwashing from Genuine Sustainability
The key differences between eco-friendly claims and authentic sustainability efforts lie in their genuineness and long-term impact.
Eco-friendly claims often refer to specific products or actions that are marketed as being environmentally friendly or less harmful to the planet. These claims may have some positive aspects, however, they may not necessarily encompass the entire lifecycle of the product or the overall practices of the brand or its parent company.
In contrast, authentic sustainability efforts involve a holistic approach where businesses integrate environmentally responsible practices into their core values, operations, and supply chains. These efforts extend beyond individual products and focus on reducing the company’s overall environmental footprint.
Authentic sustainability efforts also involve transparency, accountability, and a commitment to continuous improvement, demonstrating a genuine commitment to safeguarding the environment and making a positive impact on the planet in the long run.
The Impact of Greenwashing on the Environment
Greenwashing isn’t just guilty of deception—in fact, it has a negative impact on the environment through this deception. Customers are misled into believing that the products and services they use and consume are more environmentally friendly than they are.
This then leads to a number of different consequences, including:
- Waste generation
- Misuse of resources
- Delays in genuine sustainability efforts
- Natural resource depletion
- Stifling progress
Alongside this, it also contributes to loss of trust, which can have a negative impact on the environment itself due to consumers becoming disillusioned and making less effort due to being let down.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Want to know how to spot greenwashing? It can often be challenging to do so, however, there are clues to look for and questions to ask that can help you to become a more informed consumer—and better marketer, too:
- Check for third-party certifications
- Look for specific claims
- Research the company’s track records
- Scrutinise advertising and packaging
- Look for transparency
- Be cautious of overstated claims
- Consider the entire lifecycle
- Be aware of price and quality
- Dissect marketing language
Greenwashing and the Law: Is Greenwashing Illegal?
In the US, there are the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘Green Guides’. However, these are non-binding and billed as suggestions to businesses “designed to help marketers avoid making environmental claims that mislead consumers,” meaning that there are currently no US laws against greenwashing.
Similarly, in the UK, there are currently no laws or legislation that specifically outlaw greenwashing, however, new powers for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to impose direct civil penalties on companies will include greenwashing.
In September 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the Green Claims Code, followed by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Committee of Broadcast Advertising Practice (BCAP) publishing guidance on environmental claims and social responsibility. Since then, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has refreshed its guidance and issued rulings for misleading environmental claims and social responsibility.
In the EU, the European Commission proposed a regulating directive for ‘Green Claims’, which would complement the 2022 proposals to update EU consumer protection laws to tackle unfair commercial practices that mislead customers into thinking that certain choices are sustainable when they aren’t. There is guidance on what this would entail ensuring that businesses can substantiate their “explicit environmental claims”.
China doesn’t have a specific greenwashing law, but misleading marketing practices are regulated through advertising and consumer protection laws. In Canada, there aren’t specific greenwashing laws, but there are advertising standards codes, consumer protection acts, The Competition Act and the Trademarks Act which can cover misleading claims. Similar to China and Canada, Singapore does not have specific greenwashing guidance yet, but misleading advertising is covered by consumer and advertising acts and practices.
Certifications and Eco-Labels
Did you know that not all green certifications and eco-labels are genuine? You’d be surprised to know that many are greenwashing tactics, devised by brands and collectives to deceive consumers into thinking they are buying into something that’s eco-friendly, when in fact, it’s almost the same as a product without the same label?
Greenpeace released a report in 2021 where they’d undertaken an investigation to assess the effectiveness of certification schemes—it was found that ‘too many certified companies continue to be linked to forest and ecosystem destruction, land disputes and human rights abuses’.
How can you know whether the label you’re looking at is really ecological?
Check to see whether the label:
- Covers the entire product lifecycle, or just one or two stages
- Has been inspected by an independent control body
- Includes specifications with strict, clear criteria
Even then, there might still be greenwashing involved, so make sure to check the brand’s website for support on these claims, or the Labelinfo website, which gives detailed descriptions of various certification labels.
How about carbon offsetting? Will buying trees help?
Carbon offsetting is one of the most popular forms of greenwashing around. Rather than decreasing your own carbon emissions, carbon offsetting is designed to either cut theirs or decrease yours. Offsetting is riddled with flaws, especially since carbon offsetting projects overestimate the amount of carbon saved by their projects. Plus, there is simply not enough land to offset the carbon produced.
Those who offer ‘nature-based solutions’ state that more than 678 million hectares of land (the size of Australia or Brazil) need to be reforested to offset the amount of carbon we produce. Alongside this fact, the space doesn’t exist in the Global North, mainly due to expense (as planting trees will drive land prices up), and the decision to take this to the Global South would exacerbate negative impacts on livelihoods, land rights, food production, and ecosystems. This will lead to huge land grabs, human rights violations, biodiversity loss, and the expansion of large monocultures.
Instead of offsetting, the problem needs to be addressed at its foot; fossil fuels and ecosystem destruction. Pristine ecosystems need to be protected—Indigenous and local communities are already good at this, and they need to be further supported in being the guardians of biodiversity, while the rest of us put pressure on governments and corporations to actually do something, rather than continue with corporate greenwashing.
A Note from BrightLocal
Many across the digital industry use tree-buying as a way to offset their potential carbon emissions. At BrightLocal, we’ve looked for solutions to help offset our, admittedly very low, emissions. As well as being a zero-to-landfill business, we support sustainability efforts through Plan Vivo.
Plan Vivo offers businesses ‘certificates’ and directly uses the income from these to support sustainable livelihoods. Guardians, indigenous people, and communities whose environments have been degraded. Rather than promising tree-planting alone, they focus more on helping these communities create biodiversity and run a number of new initiatives aimed at improving both their lives and the environment.
Best Practices for Businesses
So how can your business avoid greenwashing? Here are some tips:
- Back up all of your environmental claims with data. Make sure that data is kept up-to-date and is easily accessible to consumers and consumer bodies.
- Be honest about how green your band is—and if you have any goals, stick to them.
- Don’t use exaggerated, fluffy language with your environmental claims—ensure they are detailed and specific and use language all consumers understand.
- Check your language—make sure labels are clear, and campaigns and packaging don’t include misleading messages. Don’t use too many buzzwords without evidence to back them up.
- Don’t rely on carbon offsetting, including buying trees. Instead, be proactive in your activities to improve the eco-friendliness of your brand, products, campaigns, and messaging.
- Think about your manufacturing process and whether your products can be recycled and are free of toxic materials.
Greenwashing, and its ever-growing consequences, highlight the need for marketers to be vigilant and aware of greenwashing beyond its definition.
We need to think beyond shallow statements, meaningless certifications, and carbon offsetting.
We need to concentrate more on the data behind and the impact of claims, proactive practices, and authentic sustainability.
The battle against greenwashing is a shared responsibility, advocating ethical choices, and responsible business to prioritize true sustainability.