Updated: Jul 26, 2021
Greenwashing is when companies (or organizations) provide false or misleading information to convey a more eco-friendly disposition.
The term “Greenwashing” was coined in 1987 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. It’s a play on the term “whitewashing”, which means providing misleading information to make something seem less bad than it really is. Back in the 80’s, everyone got their information from radio, TV, and print ads. Companies took advantage of that and started to implement “eco-friendly” campaigns.
In the 90’s, polls started to show that companies’ carbon footprints swayed consumer loyalty. About 10 years later, the word greenwashing had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. In 2015, a Nielsen poll proved that 66% of people globally were willing to pay more for a product if it came across as eco-friendly (it jumped to 72% among millennials).
Now, with the recent amplified awareness of climate change, companies are financially benefiting from taking an eco-friendly approach (whether their claims are real or not). A common example of this is having eco-friendly-looking packaging but not actually following through with environmentally-conscious practices and products.
Some other recorded examples of greenwashing are:
Volkswagen altered the results of their emissions tests to work in their favor. Turns out, these engines were emitting up to 40x of nitrogen oxide pollutants than they were allowed
Volks Tyson making false claims that their chicken was antibiotic-free
BP, a fossil fuel company who changed its name to Beyond Petroleum as an attempt to deceive consumers into thinking they’re “going green”
Coke, who marketed their beverages as having “natural sugar” when in reality, they did not
Plastic water bottles coming across as having an “eco-friendly” design by using less plastic. In reality, plastic bottles (or single-use plastic packaging in general) are super harmful to the environment
Perhaps one of the most popular cases was the scandal involving Westinghouse, a nuclear power plant company. They stated this claim in their 2013 commercial: “Did you know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clear air energy in the world?...[We] provide cleaner air, create jobs, and help sustain the communities where they operate”. The reality is that this company submitted false information to regulators, concealed flaws in its reactor designs, and leaked radioactive material into the surrounding area’s groundwater.
So, how do we avoid greenwashing tactics?
Thankfully, stricter regulations have been put in place. To differentiate real green from greenwashed, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) implemented guidelines to help police this issue:
Ads and packaging should list out the eco-friendly claims in plain language and in an easily-digestable fashion
An eco-friendly claim should indicate what exactly it's referencing (whether it's the product, packaging, or a portion of the product or packaging).
An eco-friendly claim should not exaggerate an attribute or benefit.
Any claims that compare a product or package to the competition must be substantiated.
The FTC also began an initiative in 2013 to police misleading and/or unsubstantiated claims of bioplastic manufacturers. In 2014, they started to issue more warnings to marketers. In Australia, there was a popular case involving a plastic bag company. This company [very publicly] made the switch to ‘biodegradable’ plastic. However, this new plastic didn’t degrade properly. The company got fined and was forced to stop selling the product. Since then, Australia has provided a guide on how to avoid greenwashing.
In addition, there are the 7 sins of Greenwashing:
Hidden Trade-Off: Labeling a product as environmentally friendly based on a small set of attributes (i.e., made of recycled content) when other attributes not addressed (i.e., energy use of manufacturing, gas emissions, etc.) might make a bigger impact on the eco-friendliness of a product as a whole.
2. No Proof: Making an environmental claim without providing easily accessible evidence on either the label or the product website (i.e., a light bulb is touted as energy efficient with no supporting data).
3. Vagueness: Using terms that are too broad or poorly defined to be properly understood (i.e., an “all-natural" cleaner may still contain harmful ingredients that are naturally occurring).
4. Irrelevance: Stating something that is technically true but not a distinguishing factor when looking for eco-friendly products (i.e., advertised as “CFC-Free"—but since CFCs are banned by law this is unremarkable).
5. Lesser of Two Evils: Claiming to be greener than other products in its category when the category as a whole may be environmentally unfriendly (i.e., an organic cigarette may be greener, but, you know, it's still a cigarette).
6. Fibbing: Advertising something that just isn't true (i.e., claims to be Energy Star Certified, but isn't).
7. Worshiping False Labels: Implying that a product has a third-party endorsement or certification that doesn't actually exist, often through the use of fake certification labels.