What is greenwashing? And how to avoid it

What is greenwashing?

Welcome to the world of Greenwashing, a practice that blocks true sustainability. 

I know it can seem simple, but marketing is driven by what sells. But, that shouldn’t mean telling fibs – or stretching the truth. 

That’s exactly what Greenwashing is. Using “green claims” to promote products and services that aren’t sustainable.

With 73% of Gen Zers willing to pay more for sustainable products, it’s never been more important to be Green. But, what if your business isn’t environmentally friendly? And, you don’t really care about conservation? How do you appeal to the younger generations? 

The answer (for some): Greenwashing

I know that you, like us, believe in transparency and authenticity when it comes to sustainable practices. But unfortunately, some businesses don’t. That’s why we’ve broken down Greenwashing to show what it is, how harmful it can be and how to avoid it.

Table of Contents

What is Greenwashing?

Unfortunately, it’s become normal (in some marketing) to expect a level of deception. But, greenwashing is so common you probably don’t even notice it. 

So, what is greenwashing? Well, it’s a sneaky marketing technique that uses a false sense of environmental responsibility to make your business stand out. 

Some brands will use intentionally misleading tactics to make products or services appear more eco-friendly than they actually are. 

Companies do this to sell as much as they can. Without any consideration for the impact this has on actual sustainability efforts. This doesn’t just confuse buyers, it slows progress towards a greener future.

Lifting the lid on Greenwashing Tactics 

Professional Greenwasher’s are masters at deception. The rise of sustainability as a major factor in sales has seen greenwashing become an everyday occurrence. It’s easy to find examples if you look.

Vague or Misleading Claims

As with every great trickster, the art of deception relies on smoke and mirrors. 

Businesses trying to amplify false environmental claims, will hide behind fluffy terms and exaggerations. You’ll see words like “natural,” “eco-friendly,” or “green” used without proper context or proof, to promote products that have no environmental benefit whatsoever. 

There is hope though. Consumers and governments are starting to wise up. And, we’re seeing more businesses being pulled up on these claims. 

Take Walmart, for example. After they launched a range of clothes made from bamboo (using “eco-friendly” processes.)  It came to light that these products were actually made from rayon.

If you don’t know, making rayon from bamboo “requires the use of toxic chemicals and results in hazardous pollutants.” As a result, Walmart has been ordered to pay $3m in fines.

Irrelevant Slogans or Imagery

Nature is an important theme in branding. Even businesses who aren’t eco-centric take inspiration from the natural form. Just look at Twitter.

But, it’s not those brands you need worry about. 

Natural images like leaves and green fields can create an association with sustainability. Some brands use these without context to keep your eyes off the environmental costs. The pictures are meant to evoke emotions and create the idea of eco-friendliness, even if the product isn’t sustainable. 

I saw an amazing example in a LinkedIn post recently. N.C. Hawkins showed how a simple rebrand of scotch tape used every trick in the book. Just look at the post below!

Hidden Trade-Offs

Obviously, there are thousands of businesses making an effort to protect the planet, without sacrificing quality. 

There are others who use environmental claims to hide the damaging effects they have on the planet. These are the ones you have to watch out for. 

Having worked in recycling for almost 10 years, I’ve seen countless examples of businesses saying they use “recyclable packaging”. Just conveniently missing out the fact that it can’t be recycled within household waste streams.

But, that’s not my favorioute example.

You have to take your hat off to fossil fuel companies for the brazen attempt at making coal sound eco-friendly. They gave it a go though. A quick search for “clean coal” will tell you everything you need to know. I think this has to top the greenwashing list.

Lack of Evidence or Certification

For your own piece of mind, I would recommend looking for validation if you’re not sure. Businesses that are genuinely committed to protecting the planet will usually back it up with accreditations. There are lots you can keep an eye out for, like; B Corp, Planet Mark, Science Based Targets Initiative and ISO’s. 

If a business is really committed, then they won’t have any trouble demonstrating the true value of their achievements, and they will encourage scrutiny. Without it, who can you trust?

How to avoid Greenwashing: Consumer Guide

It’s hard enough trying to figure out what’s an advert and what’s not these days. The rise in greenwashing means that we can’t take environmental claims at face value either. 

To avoid falling victim to greenwashing, you need to be an informed consumer and question environmental claims if they don’t seem quite right. Here are some tips to navigate the mess this has become:

Look for Certifications

Genuine eco-friendly products will carry certifications from reputable organisations such as Energy Star, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or Fair Trade. Businesses that have these will show them proudly, as a badge of honour. Use them to make the right choice.

Do Your Research

If you want to be a conscious consumer (as many of us do). Look beyond flashy claims to see what’s really going on. Carrying out research on a company’s sustainability practices by checking their environmental reports, track record, and involvement in genuine initiatives is a great place to start..

Seek Transparency

The clearest sign that a company cares is transparency. Lots of the most sustainable brands will be completely open with their buyers. 

Just look at Patagonia. Back in 2019 they decided to show everything about their product’s production. They showed the good, the bad and the ugly. Outlining how they planned to reduce any negative impact their products have on the environment. 

Look, transparency breeds trust, trust builds brand advocacy and that helps your business grow. 

Growth and sustainability might not seem like they go hand in hand, but trust me they do. In the modern world, consumers are wiser to greenwashing tactics, and are seeking emotional connections with brands.

Educate Yourself

It’s all well and good being on the lookout for greenwashing. But, if you don’t know enough about environmental issues, you might not see it. 

Stay informed. Remember, knowledge is power. Keeping up to date will help you to notice and challenge misleading green claims, wherever they pop up.

How to avoid greenwashing: Brand Guide

I’ve focused a lot on how to spot greenwashing as a consumer. But as a business owner you might be thinking. How do I avoid being accused of it myself? 

As a responsible brand you don’t want to mislead customers. But on the other hand, you might be doing some incredible stuff to improve the world. And, you want to shout about your story, your purpose and your achievements. 

Let’s look at how you can promote your business, without getting called out for greenwashing.

(Here’s a clue – just be honest, open and transparent and you can’t go too far wrong)

Understand your Impact 

Look, it’s important to know the facts. That’s why I’d always recommend working out your businesses environmental impact. There are lots of tools that can help you do this, even if you have no experience.

Finding out what effect your operations have on the environment will help you develop meaningful and impactful sustainability initiatives. You’ll also have the data to back them up.

Set Clear and Specific Goals 

Whether you want to be carbon neutral, reach net zero or restore nature. Creating goals and targets that can be easily communicated is very important. You’ve already figured out what your environmental impact is, so be realistic in showing how you’re going to reduce it. 

One simple way of doing this is to align with respected frameworks and standards, like the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Follow millions of businesses by using these pre-prepared guidelines to improve your environmental impact. 

Here are some ideas of areas you can focus on:

  • Consider your supply chain
  • Manufacturing processes 
  • Energy consumption
  • Waste management
  • Product lifecycle 
  • Responsible sourcing
  • Resource conservation
  • Circular economy initiatives 

Transparency and Accountability

As I said earlier, honesty, integrity and openness are the most important things to consider when communicating sustainability. The more you disclose, the better you will do against public scrutiny. 

Transparency is the foundation of a trustworthy brand. You can show it in many ways, here are a few things to consider:

Authentic Claims and Certifications 

If you’re following this guide, you’ve already figured out your environmental impact and created initiatives to reduce it. Use a third party to verify these claims, and then shout them from the rooftops. 

It’s also a great idea to track and record your progress. If you report regularly, your clients can see the incredible progress you’re making. This won’t just help you avoid greenwashing, it makes great PR.

Disclose Limitations and Challenges 

No brand is perfect. It’s important to acknowledge your limitations and communicate them honestly. Just showing the good stuff isn’t really open or transparent, it can seem like you’re trying to hide something. Even if you aren’t.

Think about the Patagonia example I gave earlier. Highlight areas where you’re actively working to improve and share the steps you’re taking to overcome challenges. 

Walk the Talk 

Whether you’re looking to create a planet friendly brand, or just want to limit your impact. It’s important to align your actions with your sustainability claims. 

Actions speak louder than words, and you’ll quickly be found out if you create a plan, but do nothing on it. 

Educate and Engage 

You shouldn’t feel nervous about promoting valid environmental claims. Greenwashing isn’t used for organisations who are actually trying to make a difference. 

Involving your audience in your journey is an incredible way to build a relationship. The connection between your audience and your brand is based on every interaction. And, people will see value in the effort you make to improve the world. 

It’s also great to remember that you’re not on this journey alone. There are thousands of other businesses walking the same path as you. 

So, don’t be shy. Reach out to communities (there are loads out there). Work with like-minded organisations, nonprofits, and experts to amplify your impact. Partnerships can lead to innovative solutions and shared knowledge, while also enhancing your brand’s credibility.

What does it all mean?

Greenwashing is a deceptive practice that undermines genuine sustainability efforts and misleads consumers. 

By staying vigilant, researching, and supporting companies that demonstrate true commitment to sustainability, you can avoid falling into the trap with dishonest brands. 

If you can take one thing from this article. I hope it’s – Be open, honest and transparent in everything you do and you won’t need to worry about greenwashing. We’re all on this journey together. And, only as a community can we achieve the main goal of protecting our planet.

Sustainability shouldn’t be something to shy away from. In fact, we believe the opposite.

If you’re looking for any advice on sustainable brand building, or to discuss anything around greenwashing and sustainability get in touch.

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