Greenwashing: How Companies use Sustainability as a Marketing Tool
Updated: Apr 25
Every person who has a basic understanding of how the economy works knows that if there is demand, there is supply. So when the world started demanding more sustainable alternatives, companies rushed to accommodate. However, many of them quickly realized that calling themselves eco-friendly is much easier than creating truly sustainable products. Besides, many people wouldn’t notice the lies, so why wouldn’t they keep lying?
Such behavior has unfortunately become so common that it got its own name — greenwashing. The Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing as behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.
Greenwashing happens for a variety of reasons. Some cases may be explained by the company’s insufficient research and little understanding of the damage they cause to the environment. Still, more often than not, businesses intentionally portray themselves as sustainable in order to attract eco-conscious customers. While developing a sustainable production model can be very expensive and time-consuming, creating a new marketing campaign is something most companies can afford. If the campaign works, the businesses raise their profits and produce more products and waste, which, of course, backfires on the environment.
7 Sins of Greenwashing
In 2010, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, an advertising consultancy company, conducted a study of environmental claims on green products in the US and compared them to the most sustainable industry practices. The result was shocking: out of all the products analyzed, only one of them didn’t engage in greenwashing. After further analyzing the misleading environmental claims, the company divided them into 7 categories, which it called 7 Sins of Greenwashing.
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off is the most common one. It describes the behavior when a company chooses to highlight one environmentally-friendly feature while completely omitting other aspects of its products that are harmful to the environment. This way, the product looks much more sustainable than it actually is.
2. Sin of No Proof
When companies make environmental claims but don’t provide any information that can prove them, they are committing the Sin of No Proof.
3. Sin of Vagueness
Some companies make environmental claims that don’t have a universal meaning, so they might be misunderstood by the customers. That applies to companies that use words such as “natural” and “no chemicals”.
4. Sin of Worshiping False Labels
This term is used to describe companies that create an impression of a third-party endorsement while in reality, no such endorsement was made.
5. Sin of Irrelevance
The Sin of Irrelevance is an environmental claim that isn’t relevant to the customers or the product category.
6. Sin of Fibbing
The Sin of Fibbing can be simply described as lying. However, only 1% of companies use claims that are false — usually, greenwashing is more subtle.
7. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils draws the customers’ attention away from the “big evil” by introducing a slightly less harmful alternative that still does a lot of damage.
Examples of Greenwashing
If you can’t remember what BP stands for, it’s because you’re not supposed to. Changing the name to a neutral abbreviation is one of the efforts of the British oil giant British Petroleum to save its good name in the wake of numerous greenwashing accusations. In its advertising campaigns, BP only focuses on its green alternatives, but in reality, more than 96 percent of its annual capital expenditure is still oil and gas.
In 2015, Volkswagen was at the heart of one of the biggest greenwashing scandals in the car industry. To make sure its cars passed the emission tests, the company designed a sophisticated defeat device that would notice when the car was being tested and would significantly reduce the emissions. During a test on a dynamometer, the cars would use an emission control system that would trap nitrogen oxide. However, when the cars were back on the road, they emitted up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than it is allowed.
Although Nestle labels its products as sustainably-sourced, research shows it couldn’t be further from the truth. A class-action lawsuit filed in 2019 (rightfully) accused Nestle of deforestation and using child labor in West Africa. According to The Guardian, Ivory Coast, the world’s leading cocoa producer, has lost 80% of its rainforests in the last 60 years to chocolate production. In addition, there are 1.9 million children working on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, and Nestle failed to prove it had no connection to it.
How to avoid greenwashing
Do your own research. The businesses will do their best to hide the ugly truth, so it’s better to use third-party sources. For example, Good on You, a comparator of fashion brands, rates the fashion companies’ sustainability in various aspects.
Follow through. If you buy a product that is recyclable or compostable, it’s your responsibility to recycle or compost it, not the company’s.
Choose ethical businesses. If you eat a vegan meal at McDonald’s, you are still supporting a company that heavily relies on red meat.
Shop locally. Overseas shipping may cause great environmental damage.
Learn your labels. When it comes to sustainability, labels mean more than words. Truly organic products will always have an organic label. When it’s possible, try to buy products that are certified by trustworthy organizations such as The Rainforest Alliance, the Forest Stewardship Council, or B Corporation.
Buy second hand. No matter how the product was made, it’s always the best option.