Greenwashing is a type of fake news for environmental (and social) claims which has significant implications for reputation and trust in responsible communications.
Greenwashing Links – on this page
The meaning of greenwashing | Difference between greenwashing & whitewashing | Where does astroturfing fit in? | Greenwashing or Green Marketing? | Examples of greenwashing | Our Insights | How claims could break consumer law | How to make valid claims | Why Claims can be misleading | The golden age of greenwashing
The meaning of greenwashing
Greenwashing is where meaningless or unsubstantiated claims either deliberately or accidentally mislead customers into believing a company’s performance and products are more sustainable than they really are. This can be through claims for environmental performance or outcomes without sufficient context or proof.
Sometimes also called ‘green sheen’, greenwashing can arise through overenthusiasm or from a conscious attempt to mislead or confuse. There is growing awareness of and willingness to respond to global challenges such as climate change and nature loss, which means that both corporate customers and consumers are seeking to be aware of and make informed choices about products and services that have reduced impacts.
Organisations can become overzealous in communications around sustainability, not consciously meaning to mislead but, for instance, publicly setting goals to reduce emissions in unrealistic timeframes.
This, however, is no less harmful to achieving a sustainable future than those actively projecting a smokescreen to distract from the true environmental and social costs of their activities or products. A larger marketing budget is not an indicator of a more sustainable company but it can create more environmental ‘noise’.
The difference between greenwashing and whitewashing
Whereas greenwashing refers to companies falsely claiming environmental benefits or positive environmental contributions, whitewashing is a term used in the event of an individual or organisation deliberately attempting to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about themselves or someone they represent.
Where does astroturfing fit in?
Astroturfing (a synthetic surface that mimics grass) is the practice of deliberately masking the promotor of a message, campaign or organisation to make it look like it represents genuine grassroots opinion or support. Often used as a tool for political manipulation, it has been used as a specialist, niche form of greenwashing, especially related to social issues and concerns.
Greenwashing or green marketing?
Green marketing is not necessarily greenwashing. It is perfectly possible to genuinely develop and sell products and services which have reduced relative impacts or other, more positive characteristics.
If described accurately and truthfully then green marketing can avoid the trap of greenwashing. Greenwashing is effectively green marketing done badly – whether from lack of understanding or knowledge – or through a deliberate intention to mislead.
Why is greenwashing increasing?
We think there are a number of reasons – and can identify two major drivers.
There are increasing numbers of consumers (and organisations) wanting to purchase products and services that deliver higher (relative) levels of environmental or social performance. This demand is growing and companies see it as a way of gaining differentiation and in many cases also charging a premium for these ‘better’ products.
This driver tends to increase the pressure for the best (most sustainable!) case to be made by brand and marketing functions.
Few people or organisations really like change and it can be complicated and difficult. Many examples of greenwashing are simply over-extended claims based upon small, incremental changes to products – like including a small quantity of recycled material.
NGOs argue that greenwashing is often used to create the illusion that change is happening when it is not. For high-impact sectors driving significant environmental damage, such activities can act as a distraction or smokescreen for highly unsustainable business as usual.
Recent examples of greenwashing
ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda
In July 2022, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into these three fashion brands with the intent of enforcing the Green Claims Code (GCC). This was done in response to rising complaints about environmental and social claims from companies in the fashion sector.
In 2020, Ryanair advertised that it was the “lowest emissions airline”, prompting the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban the ads, as the claim had no solid evidence to back it up.
In 2020, the oil and gas company Shell launched a Twitter poll asking ‘What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?’ The poll went viral, attracting negative critical responses with people pointing out that Shell alone is responsible for around 1-2% of global CO2 emissions per year. It was suggested that this messaging was an attempt to divert public attention away from the company’s most significant impacts. Months after this controversy, Shell was ordered by a European court to reduce their carbon emissions by 45% before 2030 from a baseline of their 2019 emissions.
With the implementation of “in-store recycling bins”, H&M have encouraged customers to recycle their old clothes for a discount on purchases. However, I:Collect (the company collecting the recycled fabrics) has said that less than 35% of that clothing actually gets properly recycled. The brand has increasingly been the focus of concerns about greenwashing, and is facing a number of lawsuits over its claims and communication on social and environmental issues and performance.
In 2022, HSBC bank released adverts relating to their investments in responding to climate change which were found to be misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when set in the context of their overall investments. HSBC ranks as the UK’s 13th biggest banking financier of fossil fuels, as well as providing funding for thermal coal mining. The ads were subsequently banned after 45 people complained to the ASA.
How claims could potentially break consumer law
- Vague assertations
- Unclear or flowery language
- Reference to ‘natural products’ without proper explanation or background
- Deceptive eco logos and labels not associated with legitimate organisations
- Deliberately hiding information, such as harm or pollution associated with specific products
How to make valid claims
Companies wanting to make a genuine difference and improve the performance of their products and services will want to avoid participating in greenwashing. Whilst it is often the easier route to talk big and do nothing, those who are dedicated to having a positive (or simply a less negative) impact on the environment will need to make sure their claims are clear, accurate, and substantiated with provable facts and figures.
Why claims can be misleading
Claims by companies can be misleading for various reasons: they could be intentionally fraudulent whilst attempting to avoid being found out, or they may be lacking in proper knowledge or expertise.
A Golden Age of Greenwash
This article from Greenpeace explains the origins of greenwashing, how it affects the way companies market to consumers and what that means for the world at large.