Greenwashing: definition and examples

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Greenwashing is a marketing technique aimed at creating an illusion of ecological responsibility. Green communication doesn't always mean that the company is environmentally responsible. This is why the concept of greenwashing is frequently used by NGOs to denounce companies that claim environmental concerns while their activities and practices prove otherwise. What is greenwashing, what are the main examples of greenwashing by companies and how to spot greenwashing practices?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” - Cambridge Dictionary

Greenwashing is the practice of marketing a company or organisation so they appear more environmentally friendly or more ecological (more natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, less wasteful of natural resources...) when in practice its activities pollute the environment. Greenwashing is therefore considered abusive or misleading because the company improperly positions itself as more green than it actually is.

Where did the term "greenwashing" come from? The term "greenwashing" was first used in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher. Greenwashing was initially used to describe a practice adopted by a beach resort in Samoa, where they provided reusable towels as a way to help the environment. Meanwhile, the resort was expanding further and further into the local land. Nowadays, however, the word has a much broader meaning.

green marketing

Due to the increasing number of greenwashing practices, consumer scepticism has increased. Unfortunately, this scepticism affects brands that are genuinely implementing environmentally friendly practices, as well as actions taken by public authorities and figures.

Greenwashing has two consequences:

  1. It misleads consumers;
  2. It doesn't bring about any improvement regarding the reduction of greenhouse gases and climate change.

Green marketing and greenwashing

Unlike greenwashing, green marketing is when companies sell environmentally and socially conscious products or services. Green marketing is generally practical, honest, and transparent. However, it's easy for green marketing to translate to greenwashing when an organization doesn't live up to the standards of sustainable business practices.

Greenwashing and companies

Many businesses have chosen to brand or rebrand their image as green, without actually offering a sustainable product or service. To fight against these misleading practices the British government, and other organisations fighting against global warming, are mobilising to raise consumer awareness about greenwashing and encourage companies to adopt a socially responsible approach to sustainable development.

These days, companies are better held accountable for how their actions and practices really affect the environment. NGOs are looking more closely at what companies are doing, and consumers are more aware than ever before about a companies’ environmental practices.

Not every “green” company is involved in greenwashing. Some companies and products are genuinely green.

Truly green energy companies

The energy sector is one part of the market heavily impacted by greenwashing. While many energy retailers claim to be green supplies, they continue to invest in non-green energy sources such as nuclear.

green energy

While it may seem like you can never really know if an energy company is actually green, or just greenwashing, here is a list of four 100% renewable suppliers in the UK market:

  1. Pure Planet;
  2. Ecotricity;
  3. Green Energy UK;
  4. Good Energy.

Of course, there are other providers who buy green energy to sell, and some that have invested in green energy production but these seem to have the most "completely renewable" offer.

  • It's important to know the difference between clean, green, and renewable:
  • Green energy: from renewable sources and with no harmful effects on the environment (either from producing greenhouse gas or other).
  • Renewable energy: renewable sources, it doesn't produce greenhouse gas but could potentially have other harmful effects on the environment.
  • Clean energy: no greenhouse gas production but does have other harmful effects (usually refers to nuclear).

Greenwashing: examples 2022

While green marketing and green initiatives can benefit companies, very few things can take a company down as quickly as greenwashing.

Lush Greenwashing

Greenwashing isn’t just for energy, it is also affecting the cosmetics sector. More and more cosmetics brands are positioning themselves as “all-natural” and “ecological” but their actual impact on the environment is often negative. This often includes claims such as “all-natural” ingredients or “chemical-free” products.

However, toxic ingredients have often been replaced by even more toxic substances such as methylisothiazolinone (an irritant), formaldehyde releasers (which contain formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic if inhaled) and phenoxyethanol (a potential allergen).

Among the biggest players in the cosmetics sector, the brand Lush is often criticised. Lush has been accused of greenwashing because its products contain toxic ingredients such as potential endocrine disruptors.

Volkswagen Greenwashing

 clean mobility

The myth of the “clean car” is used by many car manufacturers to seduce their consumers into purchasing their vehicles. Car manufacturers claim that their cars (whether that’s electric, hybrid, or diesel) are more environmentally friendly when this might not always be the case.

Some manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, have even fraudulently cheated during technical tests aimed at measuring the emissions of diesel engines. This “dieselgate”, involving Volkswagen, was first revealed in 2015 by the US Environmental Protection Agency and raised awareness of how polluting diesel engines actually are, despite claims that they might be cleaner than petrol engines.

Tips to spot greenwashing

In order to avoid getting lured in by greenwashing, it’s important to learn how to spot it. Here, you will learn the ways to tell if a company is engaging in greenwashing practices, and how to tell if a company is actually green.

Beware of green packaging

The colour green is often used to give the illusion of environmental friendliness. Green is used to invoke nature, the environment, and ecology, and as consumers become more aware of sustainable practices, companies are using this colour in their packaging without actually changing the environmental impact of their activities.

Pay attention to the product composition

It’s important to read the labels carefully and check the composition of the product. Packaging that focuses on telling you what isn’t in the product should be seen as a red flag as this is often used to distract consumers from what is actually in the ingredients list. In cosmetics, a common practice is to emphasise a natural ingredient to give the illusion that the product is not composed of other harmful ingredients.

Here are a few ingredients you might want to avoid in your cosmetics:

  • Parabens (methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, potassium butylparaben, etc.);
  • Silicones (dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclotetrasiloxane, etc.);
  • Glycol ethers (phenoxyethanol, phenoxytol, butylglycol, acetate, methylglycol, etc.);
  • Alkylphenols (heptylphenol, nonxynol, methylphenol, etc.).

Beware of misleading eco-labels

Labels are often used in an attempt to mislead consumers, as they can be difficult to verify. Some brands create their own labels which claim to be environmentally friendly. However, these labels have no legal standing. Similarly, small, green, logos can be confused with official, eco-friendly labels and just because a product has a green leaf or a green dot does not mean the product is part of a sustainable development approach. Labels are often used to mislead the consumer because they are difficult to detect. Some brands self-create labels claiming to be environmentally friendly. However, these labels have no legal value. Similarly, small green logos can lead to confusion with official labels. A small green leaf or a green dot does not mean that the product is part of a sustainable development approach.

Some green labels that guarantee a limited impact on the environment are; the EU flower, the official EU Ecolabel, or the EU Organic Label.

Find out more about our other practical guides on the environment!