The Shades of Greenwashing

July 28, 2022

Eliza Borbély



“Help us save the environment by reusing your towel.” A phrase that is familiar to all of us. Environmental activist Jay Westerveld saw a similar note in a beach resort in Fiji. Ironic, he thought, given that the hotel was generating a tremendous amount of waste and sprawling through the beach by building new bungalows but with no attention to the environmental impact. He first used the term greenwashing in his essay in 1986, criticizing the sustainability of the hotel industry.




Greenwashing means a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing than on being actually sustainable. But even before Westerveld used the term, the practice was already a popular marketing strategy. It’s an easy method to gain the favor of customers who choose to support businesses that care about the planet. With the rise of social media, greenwashing has become more sophisticated; creative advertising convinces customers of the brand’s ecological credibility. Being seen as ethical drives profitability. European consumers, in particular, expect brands to protect the environment. McKinsey report says Gen Z is more likely to spend money on brands seen to be ethical, but they are not necessarily the generation leading the change for sustainability. We need to understand the different attitudes and behaviors of green consumers. The 2015 Nielson poll revealed that 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products,  and the result is even higher (72%) among millennials. 




When big companies announce new environmental ambitions, many people are excited to see them acknowledging their impact. But greenwashing is a growing problem. Even experienced marketers and communication experts can unintentionally mislead customers. Big brands have a complete lack of visibility into their supply chain. Running a sustainability marketing campaign is more effortless than addressing complex issues. And climate change has already made itself felt in the business world, investors divest from businesses seen as too vulnerable to climate risk. 




The desire to make environmentally friendly choices creates an opportunity for brands to attract us with words such as “eco-friendy”, but carefully used marketing language can make the brand look suspicious of greenwashing. As a result, the brand’s creditability can be at risk. A recent UK study found that 40% of English would stop using a brand if they were found to be greenwashing. Companies need to do more than crafting their language and using green marketing to drive consumerism. Half of the green claims lack evidence, according to the European Commission.




“Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Tackling it requires a collective approach. We are committed to finding improved solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle. Our ambition is to achieve 100% recyclable and reusable packaging by 2025.” These are the words of Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestlé. The company was named the world’s top plastic polluter for the third year in a row, along with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in Break Free From Plastic’s 2020 report. However, the plan was too vague and avoided numerical goals. Greenpeace publicly declared its plan to be “greenwashing baby steps”, as the company disregards the environment and local communities. A beach clean-up in the Philippines revealed that almost 17% of garbage was Nestlé products. Not to mention their water usage in Michigan, close to Flint, where there is no clean drinking water, but Nestlé pays only 200$ to pump 210 million gallons of it annually.




Another example of greenwashing is Starbucks, who designed a strawless lid in 2018, which contained more plastic than the previous lid and straw combination. The company claimed that it is made from polypropylene which is recyclable plastic. However, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled and one-third of the recycling in the US is exported to developing countries, passing the responsibility to poorer countries. 




The fashion sector is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. Only 20% of discarded textiles are reused or recycled, 80% end up in landfills. Gen Z has a greater sense of social responsibility and values that force them to adopt conscious shopping habits. But creative marketing can blur the lines and create confusion about sustainable fashion. 79% of consumers say that sustainable fashion is important to them, but due to the lack of knowledge, 26% are unsure where their clothes are manufactured. 




59% of green claims made by clothing brands were found to be misleading. There is no legal definition for “sustainable”, “green” or “environmentally-friendly”, however fast fashion brands widely use these terms. H&M and Zara were caught greenwashing over the years. H&M was criticized by The Norweigian Customer Authority for “misleading” marketing of their Conscious Collection because “the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits.” 




Activists, investors, customers and watchdogs are observing the brand’s communication. Beyond legal action and bad press, customers can turn to competitors. On the other hand, brands who fear greenwashing and prefer not to communicate about their efforts risk falling behind greenwashing competitors. So what are the actions that have been taken against greenwashing? Financial watchdogs have been targetting investments based on fake green credentials. A French ecological awakening association launched an Advent calendar to prompt a vote for the worst greenwashing ad during the 2021 holiday season on LinkedIn.  Eco-Bot.Net is an online platform that exposed greenwashing and climate change disinformation on social media during the COP26 (26th Conference of the Parties) summit. The system pulled in data from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, searched for words and phrases that may be misleading. We can expect similar actions to call out greenwashing in the future.




What’s the best way to avoid greenwashing?
Green has a lot of shades, as well as customers. Brands have to align their personality with sustainability claims. They should watch out for terms with no clear meaning, such as eco-friendly, and not use jargon or information that only a scientist could understand. Companies have to be transparent and open, admit their mistakes and avoid the greening of dangerous products. Should not emphasize one tiny green attitude such as BP did, when placed solar panels on its gas stations, claiming it to be more sustainable. They should embrace a more humble dialogue to activate trust and the right emotions in customers. 

Consumers and investors are viewing their world through ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) lens. People vote with their wallets to support brands that align with their values. And ethical marketing can enhance customer trust and loyalty. Identifying green initiatives, setting actionable and realistic goals, tracking progress, and producing verifiable reports can change the appearance of a company. The consumers will tell the story of a trustworthy brand.



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