As climate change becomes a more pressing issue, many companies have taken sustainability pledges and invested in being more environmentally friendly. Some organizations have even made great strides to decrease their overall carbon footprint or shifted away from single-use plastic.

While certain companies claim to be eco-friendly, it’s clear after careful inspection that some things are not adding up. In these cases, the companies are most likely utilizing greenwashing tactics. It is also worth mentioning that in some situations, organizations accidentally employ greenwashing tactics.

An activist of the environmental protection organization ‘Greenpeace’ holds a protest poster in front of a factory gate of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company claims their product is environmentally friendly or sustainable but in reality, that is not the case. Another example is when companies claim their manufacturing process follows sustainability guidelines but it actually doesn’t. The term greenwashing does not necessarily mean that companies are lying, but they use words, images or phrases to make their claims sound better than the reality. 

One example of greenwashing is when a company purposely sells its products in misleading packaging — utilizing pictures of nature or labels that mislead consumers. Using an image of a waterfall to hint that the item is manufactured in an environmentally friendly way deceives the customer who buys the product. 

Why Is Greenwashing So Common?

People are constantly looking for ways to decrease their carbon footprint and live more environmentally-friendly lives. Many companies are also taking steps to decrease the toxic gasses their manufacturing process produces or reduce the amount of plastic their products contain. 

All of this means that people want to support eco-friendly companies. A study from 2015 found that 50% of consumers consider the environmental factors before making a purchase and 66% will even pay more if it is an eco-friendly product. Companies see this data and might be tempted to make such claims about their goods — even if it’s only partially true or not true at all for their operations.

Are Greenwashing and Green Marketing the Same?

Green marketing and greenwashing are not the same thing. Green marketing is where actual green companies — organizations that are focused on making changes that impact the environment in a positive way — market their products.

Where greenwashing is marked by a lack of evidence or intentional misdirection, green marketing typically provides consumers with proper evidence of sustainability efforts. This can be demonstrated with transparent reporting on things like reduction of industrial water usage, decreasing overall carbon emissions, or implementing the use of recycled materials in production or packaging.

Tactics Used by Greenwashing Companies

Greenwashing companies promote themselves and their goods as eco-friendly, but their actions say otherwise. In many cases, it is difficult to know if a company is really eco-friendly. Here are a few tactics to identify greenwashing organizations.

  • Market new changes as green: When companies make changes that look eco-friendly, they may fail to mention some of the drawbacks the changes bring. For example, in 2019, McDonald’s decided to stop using plastic straws — which were recyclable — and replaced them with paper straws. While this looks like a step in the right direction, the paper straws they now use are non-recyclable.
  • Misleading images: Using photos of nature on the packaging leads customers to believe products or organizations are eco-friendly when that’s not the case. This greenwashing technique is commonly used by companies that sell bottled water. Some greenwashing organizations have even gone to the lengths of creating images that look like environmentally-friendly certificates.
  • No evidence: This tactic is when companies highlight all the positive changes they say they’ve made, but fail to provide any evidence to back their claims. Don’t be fooled by this. If a company makes claims about being eco-friendly but they don’t give any proof, you should wonder if what they are saying has any actual value.
  • Only mentioning the positives: Organizations often praise some of their products’ positives but shy away from the negatives. For example, the item might have characteristics of an eco-friendly product but they fail to mention how many resources are necessary or all the emissions produced to manufacture the product.
  • Exaggerating: This is a tactic that many greenwashing companies use. They make their claims sound and look better than it truly is. This misleads people to think that the organization is making huge strides in being an eco-friendly company — when in reality, the changes they have made are much more minor and have little to no impact on saving the environment.
  • Lack of specificity: Many companies should be more precise in the claims they make. For example, adding to their packaging that it is recyclable, but they fail to mention which parts are recyclable — the packaging, product or parts of both.

The Effects of Greenwashing on Customers

People are becoming increasingly serious about living eco-friendly lives. Consumers feel misled and lied to if companies use greenwashing tactics. In many cases, this leads to bad press for the organization and can even cause sales to decrease. 

Consumers want to know that the businesses they support actually do what their claims say and not mislead them. When companies use these tactics, they break the trust of the customers that purchase their products.

How to Know If a Company Is Green Marketing or Greenwashing

Here are three key ways you can identify if a company’s claims are truly green marketing or if they’re greenwashing:

  1. Realistic: The claims the company makes are not over-exaggerated to sound better than what they truly are. 
  2. Evidence-based: Organizations provide proof of their claims.
  3. Certified: The products they market contain trusted environmental certificates —such as the cradle-to-cradle certificate.

What Do Environmental-Friendly Products Look Like?

When you know what a real eco-friendly product looks like, you can ensure that you don’t fall victim to companies using greenwashing tactics. Here are a few factors to be on the lookout for:

  • The product can be recycled.
  • The product can be reused for a different purpose.
  • The packaging is not excessive and minimal materials are used.
  • An end-of-life program is offered with the product.
  • The manufacturing process of the product does not pose a risk to the environment.
  • The product is manufactured from recyclable materials.
  • The product is manufactured from renewable materials such as wood.

Making a Difference

Some companies partake in greenwashing by accident while others purposely exaggerate their claims. Knowing what greenwashing is and what a real eco-friendly product looks like can help consumers identify these tactics when they are being used. You’ll be able to make better purchasing decisions and support companies that are actually trying to make a difference.

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