Greenwashing. You’ve heard the term before. A company and its products are “eco-friendly.” A business is on track to be “sustainable” by 2025. This strategy, greenwashing, is a way for companies to make unsubstantiated claims that their services, products, and/or processes are environmentally sound—i.e., not adding greenhouse gas emissions to the air, not leaving a massive carbon footprint, not producing tons of waste
Unfortunately, two things make greenwashing possible: companies’ effective marketing and people’s inability to know everything about everything (through no fault of their own).
Equipping businesses with the tools to follow through on sustainability goals and consumers and investors with media literacy and basic “green” knowledge, greenwashing can be rendered useless. Please note that at Green America, our definition of “green” embraces people and the planet, so we include social justice practices in our definition of “green.”
Sam Engel, co-founder of Green Business Network member Root & Leaf, a marketing agency, weighs in on the best ways to avoid greenwashing, for both businesses and clientele.
First, the Dangers of Greenwashing
A company claims to use recycled plastic, the words in bright green on the packaging, featuring a photo of a beautiful waterfall. The declaration wins over customers who are shopping in their busy lives and only know that plastic is bad.
“Consumers don’t have time or energy to deeply research every purchase and they can easily get lost,” Engel explains.
Marketers know this and intentionally choose not to reveal the company uses only 15% recycled plastic—the remaining 85% puts more plastics in the world.
Greenwashing allows companies to cut corners, make deceitful claims, and, in the end, continue damaging the planet.
As Engel describes, marketers are skilled at “playing chameleon,” knowing all the sustainable buzz words. Eco-friendly. Sustainable. Safe for the planet.
But what do these words actually mean? Well, nothing without context or proof.
Engel suggests businesses be transparent and clear in their language; he uses KIND’s slogan, “ingredients you can see and pronounce,” as an example. If the language is grandiose or vague, like a product claiming it uses organic cotton, but without any specifics, alarm bells should ring.
Another issue is the ever-evolving nature of science, technology, and sustainability.
“The language tends to evolve quickly and muddies the waters for consumers,” Engel explains. “Some terms get co-opted, others get replaced with phrases that sound good but are empty of real meaning. Brands will claim all sorts of amazing initiatives for a quick PR win."
Simple words and clear meaning will go far for a brand’s reputation.
Set Realistic Goals and Be Honest
Goals are huge in the time-sensitive fight against climate change. The Paris Climate Accords outline goals to achieve by 2030, and scientists warn of what will happen if temperatures and sea levels rise in 5, 10, 15 years, and businesses have started paying attention.
As heartening as this enthusiasm can be, it can also get businesses into hot water.
Loyalty is earned through trust. A consumer is much more likely to return time and time again to a company that is transparent and honest about its goals, rather than claiming perfection from the get-go.
“We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know,” reads Vincent Stanley and Yvon Chouinard’s book, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years. “But we can illustrate how any group of people going about their business can come to realize their environmental and social responsibilities, then begin to act on them.”
Companies use greenwashing to put forth misleading labeling while hiding their harmful practices in the fine print, if anywhere.
Always be sure to fact-check a company’s claims; often, companies can fund or execute their own research, or cherry-pick data.
Honesty goes both ways, as consumers should also acknowledge their own limitations of what they may or may not understand. One key practice to work on is media literacy—the ability to critically analyze and evaluate messages in the media, which is especially useful for identifying disinformation.
Put in the Work and Ask for Help
So, how to make good on honest claims? It takes time and hard work.
“It's easier to spin the truth than to make fundamental changes to business operations,” Engel acknowledges of businesses dealing in greenwashing.
However, now, more than ever, there’s help to be found. To become a truly green company, you don’t immediately need to know about carbon offsets, microplastics, or the most sustainable shipping options – having a multi-year sustainability plan will be more realistic.
Another tool recommended by Engel is a certification (or two, or three), like Green America’s Green Business Certification, a B Corp certification, or the Leaping Bunny certification. Certifications provide businesses with a second or third-party audit to show their sustainable practices are real and not exaggerations or outright lies.
Consumers, too, can do their own research. Read up on green practices and what various sustainable terms mean from trusted sources, fact-check claims, and investigate certifications and what, exactly, they cover and audit.
Take a Stand Against Greenwashing
Sustainability is not something to be compromised.
“Draw a line in the sand,” Engel states emphatically. “Early on at Root & Leaf, we wrote a post about companies we wouldn't work for.”
Anyone or thing can do this—a business and who it partners with, customers refusing to spend money at companies that harm people and planet.
As Green America’s Vote with Your Dollar campaign reveals, people have the power.
Businesses may think greenwashing will benefit them—winning over more customers with green claims—but in fact a majority of Americans don’t trust companies’ sustainability claims, according to GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index. If companies put in the work, though, and honestly prove their claims, it would be a win.
GreenPrint’s report found over 64% of Americans are willing to pay more for a sustainable product and 77% are concerned with products’ environmental impacts, but nearly 3 out of 4 consumers don’t know how to identify environmentally safe products.
With the right tools, and businesses putting in honest work, this win could become a reality.