An Introduction to Greenwashing

green•wash: (grēn'wŏsh', -wôsh') Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service (Greenpeace).

Walk into any supermarket or box store today and you will find hundreds of products lining the shelves that claim to be "green" or "environmentally-friendly" in some way. It could be that the label or font is simply colored green, the product's packaging is earth-toned or uses "non-mainstream" artwork or design, or the product features a leaf, tree, earth, animal, flower, sun, water, or sky symbol or image. These same characteristics can be applied to billboards, advertisements (both print and video), as well as other forms of media put out by companies and organizations in attempts to boost their "green" image and subsequently appeal to a broader range of consumers.

Visual tricks are not the only form of greenwashing. Claims made through word choice also have a very significant impact on the way in which a product or company is perceived by a consumer. Phrases and words including "natural," "biodegradable," "compostable," "recycle," "164 reuse," "eco-friendly," "organic," "eco," "green," and "sustainable" are constantly being used to describe products and companies, but these claims are not required to be supported or backed in any way by facts or proof. Today's consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally-conscious and concerned with where their products are coming from and how they are made. Companies are well aware that it is in their best interest to appeal to this expanding niche in the global market, and therefore they are willing to go to any lengths (even lie) in order to come across to consumers as being "green."

Greenwashing is a process that's affecting our food, cosmetics, cars, household products, electronics, services, etc., and yet it is rarely taken into account or discussed. As some of the more obvious aspects of greenwashing (for instance, the use of the color green in packaging and labeling) are becoming exposed, businesses and corporations are thinking up new ways to better disguise the greenwashing they're employing. This means that we as consumers need to be more alert, aware, and conscious than ever of the products and services we are spending our money on. But how are we supposed to know? How can we recognize greenwashing and avoid buying into it? 

The answer is to educate yourself about how greenwashing works. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it would be very difficult to avoid buying into greenwashing all together, especially in a society in which it is both so prevalent and hidden, but the following criteria are a good start. An environmental marketing and consulting firm, TerraChoice, has compiled a list of "The Seven Sins Of Greenwashing," which are "The Hidden Trade-Off," "No Proof," "Vagueness," "False Labels," "Irrelevance," "Lesser of Two Evils," and "Fibbing." Detailed descriptions of each "Sin" can be found at their website. (You can even play the game "Name that Sin!" to put your knowledge of greenwashing-or lack thereof-to the test.) Similarly, Greenpeace has developed four criteria that can be used to analyze greenwash: "Dirty Business," "Ad Bluster," "Political Spin," and "It's the Law, Stupid!." All of these criteria are extremely helpful in 1.) learning the broader processes and inner-workings behind greenwashing, and 2.) developing a greenwashing "consciousness" that will allow you to identify greenwashing when you see it.

How are companies held accountable for the "green" claims they make in regards to their products and services? For one, informed and conscious consumers certainly provide a challenge to greenwash. Numerous websites are devoted to exposing specific examples of greenwash and informing the public about which products and companies to look out for. Greenwashing Index allows anyone to post an ad or commercial that utilizes some form of greenwash, and users are able to vote on the degree of greenwash they feel is being displayed. The Greenwashing Blog has a similar site in which examples of greenwash found in ads, commercials, displays, billboards, etc. are posted to raise awareness of particular companies that might be repeat offenders or especially hypocritical when claiming to be "green." Last year, The Guardian ran a Greenwashing series featuring a variety of news stories that dealt with current examples of this issue.

Although greenwashing may not be a "new" issue, it is still happening and needs to be addressed. According to TerraChoice, at least 95% of products that claim to be "green" in some way are in fact committing at least one of the "Seven Sins of Greenwashing," which would imply that they are actually not "green" at all. As of 2010, only 4.5% of all products were completely "sin-free," which, according to TerraChoice, means that they did not commit any of the "Seven Sins." However, in 2009, only 2% of all products were "sin-free," so there is hope that we are slowly making progress! When it comes to the battle against greenwashing, the most important thing to remember is to question everything, and know your facts! Force yourself to go beyond the green leaf symbol and find out what the brand is trying to claim, and if their claims are supported by any real or valid evidence or not. And the next time you discover a case of really bad greenwash, post it to the Greenwashing Index to alert other consumers.

I plan to analyze more specific and current examples of greenwashing in future blog posts, so keep reading! In the meantime, what are some cases of greenwash you've experienced in the past? Do you have any tips for how to identify greenwash before unknowingly buying into it? Are you aware of specific instances of greenwash that have happened recently?


Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Great topic! I for myself over the past few years have tried to become more ‘green’ and see myself amongst others as to how to really tell the difference between the various options that are given to us as consumers. I feel as though this is a huge topic that has begun to interest our generation in particular due to the harm we have faced from chemicals and pollution and in the end we always ask where did this come from and how did we catch this deadly disease? I am so excited to continue reading your reading blog and learn more so I can share with others too!


Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Thanks Blair, I'm glad you're so interested in this topic. You're right, it definitely is a really crucial issue that our generation must come to terms with. Stay tuned for sure!

Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Seems like the people who should be looking into this and regulating these policies just don't feel like doing it. Silly people

Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword.

Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Shouldn't there be false advertising laws that these companies have to obey? Are they just being overlooked because it doesn't seem like enough of an issue or are they going through loop holes?

Re: An Introduction to Greenwashing

Jordyn, those are really good questions, which from what I know have really complicated answers. I would say false environmental advertising is being both overlooked and companies have become extremely skilled at finding loop holes in regulations. You should check out this article, (which surprisingly enough came from the Wall Street Journal) -even though it was published in 2008, from what I know many of the points it's making are still relevant. The article talks about how often the actual facts needed to support or disprove certain environmental advertising claims are lacking, and take too much time to discover. When the ruling is finally issued, the questionable ad has long passed, and therefore can no longer be held accountable. There are "watchdog" groups who are working to fight against the greenwashing that has become so common, however only a handful of countries have the ability to impose fines on the offenders. As of 2008, when this article was published, the Federal Trade Commission had plans to meet to discuss what can actually qualify as "green marketing" versus "greenwashing." Prior to that, the FTC's guidelines for environmental advertising had not been updated since 1998, so that could definitely have contributed to the start of the greenwashing epidemic. In October 2010, the FTC released the updated regulations surrounding environmental marketing claims. (Here is a summary of the Green Guides that is much easier to follow.) As of now, I'm not sure what impact these new regulations have actually had on the cases of greenwashing happening today, but that is something I will try to look into. Thanks for your comment!