What is Greenwashing? And How Can It Be Stopped?

What is Greenwashing? And How Can It Be Stopped?

Greenwashing. It’s like whitewashing but a little more specific. Let us explain… Greenwashing is the process of misleading consumers, glossing over the facts in order to present products as sustainable, eco-friendly and ethical.

It’s false marketing and unfortunately it’s standing in the way of achieving real progress where brand accountability and customer knowledge is concerned. The greenwashing phenomenon is everywhere, creating a murky layer between truth and fiction.

What is greenwashing?

Also referred to as ‘green sheen’, the term greenwashing originated in the 1980s, coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. However, greenwashing harks back to the ’60s.

Threatened by the anti-nuclear movement, which raised questions about safety and environmental impact, Westinghouse’s nuclear power division fought back with a series of ads proclaiming the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power plants.

In recent years some of the world’s largest companies have attempted to rebrand and reposition themselves as green champions, while on the high street, plenty of household brands have made the change to packaging that looks and feels more eco-friendly and sustainable.

You’ll likely have noticed plenty of product packaging that now contains the words ‘natural’ ‘organic’ ‘vegan’ and ‘gentle’. Whether or not these claims are actually valid when put to the test is another matter.

brands pretending to be sustainable

Greenwashing in fashion

In a recent report published by Corporate Knights, global retailer H&M was named as one of the most sustainable fashion companies in the world, coming in at 27 out of 100 sustainable companies across a variety of sectors. However, this announcement was met with scepticism by some sustainability advocates, who accused the billion-dollar brand of greenwashing.

This isn’t the first time the brand has come under fire for virtue signalling either. When H&M launched its first ever Conscious capsule collection, some fashion bloggers accused the label of not doing enough to promote sustainability and co-opting the movement for profit.

It isn’t 100% clear just how sustainable a brand like H&M actually is or will become in the future, which is why transparency is so important for modern businesses. The very fact that consumers have begun to ask questions about fashion’s supply chains, fabrics and garment workers’ welfare has signalled that the greenwashing phenomenon may soon come to an end.

Many brands are pledging to eliminate non sustainable products from their offering entirely, calling for others to do the same, and publicly naming and shaming competitors for failing to do so. But just because the world is waking up to the need for sustainable products, doesn’t mean they’re always easy to identify. Greenwash is still being adopted by marketers the world over.

what is greenwashing?

How to spot greenwashing

So now we know what greenwashing is, how do we spot it? Greenwashing in fashion and greenwashing in beauty is particularly rife. These industries are so vast that we simply don’t know where the majority of products are made, under what kind of circumstances and at what cost.

Many consumers also don’t think to seek out this information. Shoppers generally practice optimistic thinking, making the assumption that there are no severe human or environmental costs to the production of the things marketed to them. Have you ever considered the journey of a garment, the people who made it, their wages, living conditions, the fabric itself, the water used, waste created, deforestation, the journey of the clothing, all the way from source to store?

When a product is ethically produced, these considerations aren’t as necessary. The brand will have done the due diligence, ensured that this entire process is not directly harmful to the planet or to the people producing the clothing. Consumers can relax a little. But what about when a brand doesn’t do its due diligence?

What about when only a single ingredient or component of a product is ethically produced yet the whole product is marketed as ethical? What if the product isn’t ethical at all and the brand markets it as ‘vegan’ ‘activist’ ‘natural’ or ‘recycled’? This is where greenwashing misleads shoppers.

The greenwashing checklist

Futerra’s Selling Sustainability Report published in 2015 gives us 10 marketing strategies used in greenwashing that we should be looking out for. This is often a good place to start…

Vague language: Words or terms with no clear meaning. What does eco-friendly actually mean? How is the product friendly?

Green products vs. dirty company: For example, energy-efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers or a single vegan product in a cosmetics line that is known to test on animals.

Suggestive imagery: Images that present the product as being environmentally friendly. Think green leaves and animals.

Irrelevant claims: Watch out for this one. In many cases, the emphasis on a very small attribute will be the entire focus.

“Best-in-class” boasts: Beware ‘we’re greener than the rest’ rhetoric. The rest might be terrible and this brand might be just as bad.

Lack of credibility: Is nuclear energy good for you? Are cigarettes?

Jargon: Information that only a scientist could check or understand.

Imaginary friends: Made-up third-party endorsements.

No proof: A claim that could be true but there’s no evidence present.

Outright lies: Totally fabricated claims or manipulated data.

false sustainable marketing is called greenwashing

Trust and transparency pays off

So what can we use to identify and eradicate greenwashing? We can type the question ‘what is greenwashing’ into a search engine, sure, but what about tools to help verify which brands are truly sustainable and which are merely virtue signalling? That’s obviously where we come in.

We work hard to verify brands’ sustainability ranking, but this kind of verification needs to be rolled out globally, putting pressure on brands to step up and walk the walk, instead of just taking the talk.

And how do we turn an entire industry on its head and demand accountability? That’s where regulation comes in. By regulating supply chains, trading costs, rights to safe working environments and a living wage, sustainable policy makers will be able to hold brands accountable for dubious behaviour and greenwash.

But hang on, what good is all this verification and accountability if consumers can’t make sense of it? For this to work, information and resources need to be made readily available to consumers. And that’s where brands step up.

Brand transparency is essential so that consumers know exactly what they’re buying, where it comes from and how it’s made. And with brand transparency comes the end of greenwashing.

As a business, it’s crucial to employ a strategy that positions transparency as a key priority. This is essential to gaining and retaining consumer trust. It may seem like a quick win to market a product as ethical, sustainable or eco-friendly, when in fact, it barely qualifies as any of those things, but in the long term, consumers will discover the truth and false marketing will do your business more harm than good.

With new regulations and verification tools affecting brands’ ability to get away with greenwashing, the effects are guaranteed to negatively impact brand reputation.

Trust, authenticity and transparency pays off. We’ve already seen that developing a greater volume of truly sustainable products instead of making false claims and rebranding existing ones means a spike in new customers, customer retention, sales and brand trust.

How to eliminate greenwashing

So to sum up, how to we do away with greenwashing once and for all?

Greater consumer knowledge

Brand transparency and accountability

Focused industry regulations

Ethical verification tools

Written by Emily Lavinia