How To Avoid Greenwashing and False Advertising

Updated November 5, 2023.

Graphic of a green Earth with green arrows flowing around it. Image by annca from Pixabay
Image by annca from Pixabay.

What is Greenwashing?

In short, greenwashing is false advertising. Greenwashing is advertising or promotions in which green marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of the verb greenwash: “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”1 Sometimes this is unintentional when a company truly doesn’t know that what they’re claiming isn’t actually environmentally friendly. More often than not, however, it is completely intentional.

“Companies often use greenwashing in their marketing to make consumers feel good by making them think less about where their products come from and how the products are disposed of.” -Jennie Romer2

Dawn dish soap advertisement, a baby duck on green grass, "Sometimes, our most important use has nothing to do with dishes."

Above is a classic example of greenwashing. While Dawn dish detergent is used on wildlife after oil spills, it is a petroleum-based product. Worse, the parent company, Proctor & Gamble, tests on animals, so they aren’t always saving animals. You can read more about Dawn dish detergent in this article.

How To Spot Greenwashing

“Is the ad diverting you from the big picture? Sure BP helped clean up cuddly little ducks. It pulled on your heart strings. How adorable! But, if it weren’t for gross negligence on their part, those little ducks wouldn’t have been covered in oil in the first place. That’s greenwashing.” -Kathryn Kellogg, goingzerowaste.com3

You can avoid buying products under false pretenses and misleading claims. The easiest rule, of course, is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. An internet search is the easiest way to find out if a claim is true or not. Or, you can always contact the company for specific information. If they can’t provide it, then something’s not right.

Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that there are signs you can look for to determine if a product or advertisement is using greenwashing:

      1. The company uses nature as a prop in ads, including images of nature with a product to make you think that the advertised item is eco-friendly.
      2. The company makes vague promises, such as ‘reducing impact’ or ‘made from sustainable materials.’ Unless they cite specific examples or materials, be suspicious.
      3. Goals with a date but no updates: If a company promises to do something by a certain date, did they complete the goal? Did they update their information? If not, this may have been greenwashing.
      4. They provide little or no evidence of any sustainable practices.
      5. Only a few of the company’s products are sustainable or eco-friendly. This is the company’s effort to gain sales from people who care, but not the company actually caring.
      6. Certifications that aren’t actually real. If a company uses a recycling symbol and puts the word ‘responsible’ or ‘earth-friendly’ next to it, it doesn’t mean any organization or person has certified their claim.
      7. The company never advertises making less of certain products, since overproduction is often one of the problems (like plastic).
      8. Overuse of referring to their own Code of Conduct, which are voluntary measures and have no legal ramifications if the company violates them. A truly sustainable company will sign legally binding agreements that protect workers and the environment.
      9. Failure to mention Scopes 1, 2, and 3 emissions in sustainability reports.4
A hand holding a plant, with green paint over the plant and part of the hand. White wall background.
Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.

“A 2022 study by the European Commission found that of 150 environmental claims assessed, 5 3. 3 % of them provided ‘vague, misleading or unfounded information on products’ environmental characteristics’. A 2020 study in  Norway, meanwhile, found that green claims may be ‘false or deceptive’ in 42% of cases. But if it takes teams of consumer experts to spot these false claims, how does the average consumer know when they’re being greenwashed?” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe5

Specific Examples of Greenwashing

Coca-Cola plantbottle advertisement

There are so many examples of greenwashing! I wrote about a few examples in an article from my Packaging Industry Series. One famous one was Coca-Cola’s “Plantbottle,” which did not have the environmental benefits that the company claimed. An older example is from 1991, when “chemical company DuPont announced its double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals prancing in chorus to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ It turned out the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. that year.”6 Here’s the video:

A famous case of greenwashing was committed by Volkswagen in the 2010s, which got caught using a ‘defeat’ device to cheat emissions testing. This was no accident. Volkswagen developed a “proprietary software that could detect when it was undergoing emissions testing, altering the performance to reduce the emissions level, all while touting the low-emissions features of its vehicles through marketing campaigns. In truth, however, these engines were emitting up to 40 [times] the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.”7

Volkswagen ad claiming cleaner diesel.

“Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on. The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution and global species extinctions.” -Leyla Acaroglu, founder of The Unschool8

I’ve included other articles about greenwashing under Additional Resources below. I hope this article helps you. Please share and subscribe!

Earth friendly graphic, green with a leaf at center.
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images.

Additional Resources:

Article, “The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing,” by Bruce Watson, theguardian.com, August 20, 2016.

Video, “Tips to Avoid Greenwashing,” goingzerowaste.com, October 31, 2017.

Article, “10 Companies Called Out For Greenwashing,” by Deena Robinson, Earth.org, July 17, 2022.

Article, “Green Lies: The Most Infamous Greenwashing Examples Revealed,” by Ibrahim Okunade, greenhive.io, September 4, 2023.

Footnotes:

  1. Page, definition of greenwash, dictionary.cambridge.org, accessed November 5, 2023.
  2. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  3. Article, “7 Tips to Avoid Greenwashing,” by Kathryn Kellogg, goingzerowaste.com, updated on September 11, 2020.
  4. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  5. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  6. Article, “What is Greenwashing?” by Carlyann Edwards, businessnewsdaily.com, updated September 1, 2023.
  7. Article, “What is Greenwashing? How to Spot It and Stop it,” by Leyla Acaroglu, medium.com, July 8, 2019.
  8. Article, “What is Greenwashing? How to Spot It and Stop it,” by Leyla Acaroglu, medium.com, July 8, 2019.