Greenwashing: How to Identify and Combat Misleading Environmental Claims
Take this bottle of shampoo. From the outside, it seems sustainable and appealing to conscious consumers. However, when we peer under the surface, we may feel duped.
Have you ever bought a product because it claimed to be sustainable, only to discover later that its environmental claims were exaggerated or even false?
If so, you’ve fallen victim to greenwashing. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. In today’s world, where consumers increasingly demand environmentally responsible products, many companies are jumping on the “green” bandwagon – often without committing to sustainable practices. According to the UK government, a global sweep found 40% of firms’ green claims could be misleading.
So, how can we as consumers and businesses alike, identify and combat greenwashing?
What is greenwashing?
According to Investopedia, “Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or misleading information about how a company’s products are environmentally sound. Greenwashing involves making an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do.”
Terms such as “green,” “eco-conscious,” “earth-friendly,” and “environmentally responsible” are employed to characterize products, services, or practices that purport having minimal or zero detrimental effects on the environment. These terms lack clear definitions established by any recognized national or international standards, allowing for subjective interpretation by consumers and businesses.
Types of greenwashing
Greenwashing may take many forms, here are some examples:
- Fluffy language: Using vague terms like “eco-friendly” without clear meaning.
- Green product versus dirty company: Environmentally friendly products made by polluting companies.
- Suggestive pictures: Images implying false green impact, like flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.
- Irrelevant claims: Highlighting a minor green attribute while ignoring overall non-green aspects.
- Best in class: Claiming to be slightly greener than competitors, even if all are environmentally harmful.
- Just not credible: Labeling dangerous products as “eco-friendly,” doesn’t make them safe.
- Jargon: Complex information that only experts can verify or understand.
- Imaginary friends: Fake labels resembling third-party endorsements.
- No proof: Claims without supporting evidence.
- Out-right lying: Completely fabricated claims or data.
Planet Tracker has developed a useful reference to define the different shades of greenwashing:
Claims of environmentally responsible products can encompass one or more of the following aspects (non-exhaustive list):
- made from non-toxic, renewable, or sustainable materials
- recyclable, compostable, or reusable
- packaging is recyclable, compostable, or reusable
- minimal or no carbon footprint
- minimal or no plastic footprint
- energy-efficient (uses less energy)
- sourced or produced locally
For a business, these assertions may relate to positive environmental practices implemented within their operations (this list is not exhaustive):
- reduce energy and water consumption
- reduce GHG emissions
- reduce air emissions (SOx, NOx, fine particulate matter, etc.)
- reduce and/or recycle waste
- use sustainable raw materials (e.g.renewable, recycled)
- use renewable energy
- design and produce “green” products
Source: The Matcha Initiative
How to avoid greenwashing and build a sustainable business reputation
As a business striving to be environmentally responsible, avoiding greenwashing and ensuring your actions genuinely contribute to sustainability is important. Here are three key strategies to help you achieve this goal:
1. Emphasize Transparency and Honesty
Be open about your environmental practices and avoid using ambiguous or misleading language. Support your claims with concrete evidence, and be truthful about your business’s positive and negative environmental impacts.
2. Prioritize Tangible Environmental Benefits – Use Science-backed Claims
Don’t just label your business as “green;” concentrate on specific benefits that make a difference. These may include reducing energy consumption, minimizing water usage, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, ensure that your products and services are genuinely more environmentally friendly than the alternatives available, with supporting evidence to demonstrate this.
3. Include Context
A true commitment to sustainability requires ongoing dedication. Consider the impact of the entire product or service’s lifestyle and clearly communicate this. Never focus on just one or two positive benefits to hide more serious negative impacts elsewhere.
4. Provide Evidence and Avoid Unverified Claims
For any claims made, such as “sustainable” you must explain why and include independent data and analysis to support your claims. Simply stating something is sustainable will not satisfy savvy consumers and may lead to prosecution on certain countries such as the UK where legislation in the form of the Green Claims Code exists.
5. Avoid Jargon
Many terms related to sustainability – even the word itself have been overused and become meaningless. Radley Yeldar Referred to this as the use of “stock” language in their insightful research, Words That Work. Terms like “eco-friendly” and “organic” used in isolation with no supporting evidence can easily be seen through by today’s consumers.
One space to watch currently is Singapore where guidelines are in the works following a detailed study in late 2023. The study was conducted by the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School which looked at over 1,000 products on 100 of the e-commerce sites most visited by Singapore residents. The study found that 51% of online product claims were vague and lacked sufficient detail to support their claims. Whilst legislation is pending, the PRCA APAC Guidelines issued in 2023 provide a detailed framework for sustainability communications.
The greenwashing challenge
Companies struggle with greenwashing for various reasons. Some may lack the expertise or resources to implement genuinely sustainable practices and resort to making misleading claims to appear environmentally responsible. Others may have a poorly defined sustainability strategy, leading to inconsistencies in their environmental messaging and actions. In some cases, companies may intentionally use greenwashing to capitalize on the growing demand for conscious products without investing in real change. For many companies, there is a lot of confusion and unclear guidelines as to how to communicate with authenticity and transparency. Communicating about sustainability also goes beyond the traditional role of marketing
Examples of greenwashing
Unilever’s cleaning brand Persil is one of the UK’s most popular. With consumer demand placing pressure on companies for environmentally conscious products, Unilever has improved its efforts to appear sustainable. Unilever released an advert where they claimed Persil was “kinder to our planet”, and featured children picking up litter on a beach. The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the advert’s claim was unsubstantiated. The ASA banned the advert after it concluded that the basis of the claim “kinder to our planet” had not been made clear.
HSBC, ranked 13th among UK banks financing fossil fuels, continues to support carbon-intensive industries like thermal coal mining. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a series of misleading advertisements this year and mandated that future campaigns disclose the bank’s impact on the climate crisis. The ASA’s decision came after numerous complaints about posters displayed on high streets and bus stops before the COP26 climate conference. The ads emphasized HSBC’s $1tn investment in eco-friendly initiatives, such as tree-planting and assisting clients in achieving climate goals, but not the bank’s role in emissions.
In Singapore, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASAS) banned an advertisement from Prism+ air conditioners for greenwashing. This decision, the first of its kind in Asia, followed a complaint about the ad’s misleading claim that their air conditioners can “save the Earth” due to their energy efficiency. The ad, featuring influencer Xiaxue, showed her setting the air conditioner to 23°C to “save Earth and electricity.” The ruling occurred after a study revealed that over half of the environmental claims on e-commerce sites in Singapore were vague and lacked detail. The ASAS emphasized the need for truthful presentation in ads and required Prism+ to substantiate any energy-saving claims with third-party testing. This event highlights growing attention to greenwashing practices and the importance of substantiating environmental claims in advertising. (Source: Eco-business)
Coca-Cola faced accusations of greenwashing in two instances. Firstly, it advertised its low-sugar Coca-Cola Life as a “green, healthy alternative.” Secondly, the company claimed commitment to reducing plastic waste. Nutritionists pointed out that Coca-Cola Life was still unhealthy, leading to its removal from shelves due to the misleading low-sugar label. Similarly, Coca-Cola faced legal action regarding its plastic waste claims, as it is considered one of the world’s largest plastic polluters.
Benefits of becoming greenwashing-aware
As a consumer, becoming aware of greenwashing and learning how to identify and combat it, you can:
- Make more informed purchasing decisions, supporting companies that genuinely prioritize sustainability.
- Help create a more transparent market where companies are held accountable for their environmental claims. A 2023 McKinsey study highlighted that brands that garner more than half of their sales from products making ESG-related claims enjoy 32-34% repeat rates.
- Contribute to a more sustainable future by encouraging businesses to adopt truly sustainable practices rather than relying on superficial green marketing tactics.
Practical tips on identifying and combating greenwashing
Here are some tactics you can use to spot and fight against greenwashing as a business and a consumer:
- Do your research: Look beyond the label and investigate a company’s overall environmental practices. Check for third-party certifications, such as B Corp, LEED, or Fair Trade, which can provide more assurance of genuine sustainability efforts.
- Ask questions: Contact companies directly about their environmental claims and practices. A transparent company should be willing to provide detailed information about its sustainability initiatives.
- Support truly green businesses: Vote with your wallet by supporting companies that demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability rather than those that rely on greenwashing tactics.
Consumers in Singapore who encounter greenwashing claims can report them to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), according to Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan in an article with Mothership. In severe cases, suppliers may be referred to the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) for investigation. Singapore monitors global developments and assesses if any overseas regulations can be applied locally to combat greenwashing. Refer to the following key points for companies to note when making green claims in Singapore.
Consumer’s point of view
As a consumer who values sustainability, I’ve encountered greenwashing numerous times. I’ve learned to look beyond the surface and dig deeper to understand a company’s true environmental commitment. By doing so, I’ve discovered brands that genuinely prioritize sustainability and have become more conscious consumers.
One place to start is to think about items you purchase regularly, e.g. coffee. Research the industry and understand the challenges and certifications such as Fairtrade or USDA Organic. With this knowledge, you can feel empowered as a conscious consumer that you are making the best choices possible in the absence of any robust data to support the claims made.
Be sceptical of claims that seem too good to be true, such as a product claiming to be 100% environmentally friendly. No product can have zero impact on the environment. By being informed and critical, you can avoid falling for greenwashing tactics.
Software, tools, and resources are useful to minimize your exposure to greenwashing as a consumer. Websites like Good On You and B Corp help you evaluate brands’ environmental claims and avoid potential greenwashing.
Addressing greenwashing is not only important for maintaining consumer trust but also for promoting genuine sustainability efforts that have a positive impact on the environment. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, businesses must be held accountable for their green claims, ensuring they are transparent and accurate. Understanding potential misleading claims and improving our consumer knowledge can create a more responsible marketplace that encourages innovation and environmental stewardship. Governments, businesses, and consumers must work together to combat greenwashing, fostering a culture of honesty and integrity.
Ready to take your sustainability communication to the next level? Email me to work together to eliminate greenwashing in your company’s documentation.