An Overview of Greenwashing

••• Jorg Greuel, Getty Images

Green claims such as “Natural”, “Organic”, and “Eco-friendly” seem to be everywhere as consumers tend to have a favorable attitude towards the products and services that are environmentally friendly. The perception is that by using the environmentally friendly products and services, they are contributing to preserve and protect the environment.  But the consumers are hardly in a position to verify the claims and companies and businesses seem to take advantage of that opportunity.

That is where the concept of Greenwashing comes from.

The Definition of Greenwashing

The term came from two words; green (environmentally sound) and whitewashing (to gloss over wrongdoing). So, the term refers to unjustified, false, deceptive marketing claims by a company, an industry, a govt. or non-govt. organization, or a politician to sell a product or a policy, and create a pro-environmental image. Companies and business are falling all over themselves to display to their customers that they are ecologically conscious and environmentally correct. This is an alarming phenomenon that makes “Green” the “New Black”. At best, the claims can reflect the truth about a business or company’s efforts to exercise environmentally sound practices, but the worst can be whitewashing some major corporate misconduct.  

The Sins of Greenwashing

There are many different kinds and levels of Greenwashing based on the sin committed in a marketing claim.

Here are the major Greenwashing sins:

Hidden Trade-off: The sin of hidden trade-off refers to a marketing claim suggesting that a product is environmentally friendly based on a narrow set of attributes without giving attention to other vital environmental issues. Say for example, paper is not eco-friendly only because its source is sustainably harvested forest.

Chlorine use in bleaching, greenhouse gas emissions in the paper making process are other environmental issues that may be equally important.  

No Proof: The claims that can’t be validated by a reliable third party certification or by easily accessible supporting information.  A perfect example is the claim of having different percentages of post-consumer recycled content in toilet tissues or facial tissue products without providing evidence.

Vagueness:  A claim which is so poorly defined that the actual meaning of the claim can easily be misunderstood. An example of this kind of sin is “All-inclusive”. Formaldehyde, mercury, uranium, and arsenic are all poisonous yet naturally occurring. So, “All-natural” does not necessarily mean environmentally friendly.

Worshiping False Levels: Through either images or words, if a product gives the environmentally friendly impression of third party endorsement when no such endorsement exists, that should be the sin of fake labels.   

Irrelevance: A claim that is in fact true but is completely unrelated to the product and unhelpful or unimportant for consumers looking for environmentally friendlier products. One perfect example of this sin is the claim “CFC-free”.

This is a very frequent claim in spite of the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

Lesser of Two Events: A marketing claim that can be true within the category of the product, but risks distracting the customers from the larger ecological impacts all together. The fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle and organic cigarettes can be two perfect example of lesser of the two sin of greenwashing.

Fibbing: An environmentally friendly claim that is completely false. A product falsely claiming to be Energy Star registered or certified is a perfect example of fibbing.

Sources reveal nearly 98 percent of all environmental friendly claim commit at least one of the above seven claims. So, greenwashing is so rampant and seem to be a big international challenge. Consumers who show favorable attitudes towards environmentally friendly products need to have a solid understanding of the above seven sins of greenwashing and ask the right set of questions to verify is a claim is greenwashing or not.