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  • Writer's pictureValinda

Eco-Fraud Alert: Examples of The 7 Sins of Greenwashing

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

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 operates like a magician's sleight of hand, luring us into a world of apparent sustainability while concealing a larger environmental impact. It's the eco-equivalent of a mirage in the desert, presenting a singular aspect of a product's eco-friendliness while shrouding the overall picture. Imagine a product proudly boasting its recyclable packaging, yet remaining silent about the excessive carbon emissions from its manufacturing process. This sin whispers promises of environmental stewardship while conveniently obscuring the broader ecological footprint, leaving consumers entranced by a shimmering façade of sustainability without revealing the complete truth.

Example:

Consider a company that markets its bottled water as eco-friendly due to its use of recyclable plastic bottles. The company heavily emphasizes the recyclability of their packaging, suggesting that buying their water helps the environment. However, they fail to address the substantial hidden trade-off: the overall environmental impact of the bottled water industry. While their bottles might be recyclable, the production and transportation of single-use plastic bottles contribute significantly to pollution, resource depletion, and energy consumption. By focusing solely on the recyclability of their bottles, the company conveniently hides the larger issue of the environmental harm caused by the entire lifecycle of their product, misleading consumers into believing that purchasing their water is a more environmentally responsible choice than it actually is.


plastic bottles - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

2. Sin of No Proof

In a world where "green" labels are slapped onto products like stickers on a suitcase, the Sin of No Proof reigns as a sneaky trickster. It's that subtle, elusive claim hanging in the air like a promise without substance—a whisper of eco-friendliness without the backing of hard evidence. Think about those shampoos boasting of being "planet-loving" or detergents promising to be "environmentally responsible" without offering a shred of proof to support their lofty claims. It's the eco-equivalent of a magician's disappearing act, leaving us consumers in a cloud of doubt, wondering if these products are genuinely good for the planet or just skilled in the art of green mirage.

Example:

Imagine a laundry detergent claiming to be "100% eco-friendly" without providing any proof or substantiating evidence of its environmental claims. The label may feature picturesque nature scenes or words like "green" and "natural," giving the impression of environmental friendliness. However, upon closer inspection, there's a lack of specific information regarding the ingredients used, the manufacturing process, or any certifications validating its eco-friendly status. This absence of concrete evidence or third-party certifications leaves consumers questioning the validity of the detergent's environmental claims, falling into the Sin of No Proof.


laundry room - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

3. Sin of Vagueness

In the labyrinth of labels and claims plastered across products, the Sin of Vagueness emerges as a master of disguise, cloaking itself in the ambiguity of well-intended yet imprecise terms. Like a mirage in the desert, phrases like "eco-friendly" or "natural" shimmer enticingly on packaging, promising an environmentally conscious choice. However, this sin thrives on the lack of clarity, dancing in the grey areas of semantics, leaving consumers lost in a haze of uncertainty. Without concrete definitions or standards, these vague assertions become a puzzle without a solution, urging us to question the true meaning behind the words stamped on every label. It's the sleight of hand in the realm of greenwashing, promising everything and yet revealing nothing substantial, leaving us yearning for transparency amidst the fog of marketing jargon.

Example:

Consider a skincare product labeled as "all-natural." This product presents the Sin of Vagueness by using a broad term like "all-natural" without specifying which ingredients are natural or providing further context. While the term may imply that the product is derived from natural sources, it lacks clarity about the actual composition. It could contain a few natural ingredients mixed with a host of synthetic or potentially harmful substances. Without a detailed breakdown of what "all-natural" truly entails or without third-party verification or certification, consumers are left in the dark, unsure of what they're truly applying to their skin. This ambiguity highlights the challenge consumers face in deciphering the authenticity of environmental claims, showcasing the Sin of Vagueness in action.

natural skincare - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

4. Sin of Worshiping False Labels

In a world flooded with products vying for our attention, it's easy to fall into the allure of false promises. The Sin of Worshiping False Labels preys on our trust, dressing up goods in the borrowed robes of credibility. A label that mimics the legitimacy of a revered certification or a nod from a prestigious environmental group can be the camouflage behind which lies an entirely unverified claim. It's akin to a masquerade ball where masks of authenticity cloak products, seducing consumers with the illusion of eco-responsibility. Yet, beneath these false labels often lurks a stark absence of genuine endorsement, leaving us navigating through a labyrinth of deceit in pursuit of authentic sustainability.

Example:

Imagine strolling through a supermarket aisle, searching for a detergent that aligns with your eco-friendly values. Amidst the array of options, one particular bottle catches your eye with a prominent emblem resembling a renowned environmental certification. Trusting this symbol of sustainability, you toss it into your cart, believing you've made an eco-conscious choice. However, upon closer inspection at home, you realize that the label merely imitated the certification's logo without any actual endorsement. The Sin of Worshiping False Labels has tricked you into thinking you were supporting an environmentally responsible product, only to discover it was merely masquerading as green, masking its true impact on the planet behind a deceptive facade.

This hypothetical scenario illustrates how false labeling can mislead consumers into believing a product is environmentally certified or endorsed when, in reality, it lacks the genuine accreditation or approval it claims to possess.

fake eco label - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

5. Sin of Irrelevance

In the world of greenwashing, the Sin of Irrelevance stands out like a misplaced puzzle piece in the grand scheme of sustainability. It's that moment when a product proudly boasts about a trivial environmental feature, akin to praising a car for having seat belts—mandatory and expected, but hardly a remarkable selling point. It's the 'CFC-free' label on a product that never contained those substances in the first place or the announcement of a 'BPA-free' water bottle, conveniently forgetting that all water bottles are BPA-free due to regulatory changes. This sin is the art of highlighting the obvious or inconsequential, a tactic that camouflages the lack of genuine environmental commitment behind a veil of seemingly green gestures. It's a reminder that not all claims of eco-friendliness hold the weight they're painted to carry, urging us to dig deeper for substance amidst the superficial gloss of environmental marketing.

Example:

Let's consider the example of a company advertising its new line of "green" disposable diapers. They proudly label these diapers as "tree-free," emphasizing that they're made without wood pulp and, therefore, saving trees.

However, the Sin of Irrelevance comes into play when it's revealed that most disposable diapers have never been made with wood pulp to begin with. By highlighting the absence of wood pulp as a major environmental benefit, the company creates a misleading impression of eco-friendliness while overlooking the larger environmental impact of disposable diapers, such as their contribution to landfill waste and resource-intensive manufacturing processes. While the absence of wood pulp might seem like an environmentally positive aspect, it's actually an irrelevant claim that sidesteps the more critical issues associated with disposable diaper use.

diaper - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

6. Sin of Fibbing

The Sin of Fibbing in the realm of greenwashing is like dressing up a falsehood in the robes of credibility. It's the moment when a product or company boldly proclaims an environmental benefit, proudly showcasing badges of certifications they haven't earned or statistics they've inflated. It's akin to a magician's sleight of hand, promising the audience a wondrous trick while secretly manipulating the truth. This sin deceives consumers, erodes trust, and tarnishes the genuine efforts of those striving to make a positive environmental impact. It's not just a mere twist of words; it's a betrayal of trust and an obstacle to real progress toward a sustainable future.

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.

Example:

Imagine a household cleaning product claiming to be "100% natural" and "chemical-free" without providing any specific details or evidence to support these claims. Upon closer inspection, it's discovered that while the product might contain some natural ingredients, it also includes synthetic chemicals that are harmful to the environment. The company, however, boldly displays images of lush greenery and phrases suggesting pure, untouched nature on its packaging, creating an illusion of eco-friendliness. Yet, when investigated, there are no legitimate certifications or verifiable proof to substantiate these claims of being entirely natural or free from chemicals. This manipulation of language and presentation serves as a classic example of the Sin of Fibbing in greenwashing—misleading consumers by stretching the truth and obscuring the real environmental impact of the product.

cleaning products - 7 Sins of Greenwashing

7. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

In the realm of environmental claims, the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils stands as a cunning deception, a sly manipulation that often cloaks itself in a guise of relative virtue. Picture this: a product labeled as "green" or "environmentally friendly" solely within the confines of its own, inherently damaging category. It's the deceptive allure of a lesser evil, a smoke and mirrors act that convinces consumers that choosing the slightly less harmful option somehow equates to a positive environmental impact. Yet, this sin challenges us to look beyond the surface, questioning whether settling for a milder harm truly aligns with our genuine quest for sustainability and ethical consumption. It's a reminder that true environmental progress demands more than just choosing the lesser evil; it demands the pursuit of genuinely beneficial alternatives that steer clear of harm altogether.

Example:

 An example of the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils in action can be found in the realm of disposable products. Consider a company marketing its single-use plastic water bottles as "eco-friendly" because they use 20% less plastic compared to their competitors' bottles. While this reduction might seem like a step in the right direction, it's still perpetuating the use of non-biodegradable materials that contribute to environmental pollution and harm. Labeling these bottles as "green" within the context of their own category might mislead consumers into believing they're making an environmentally conscious choice when, in reality, the fundamentally unsustainable nature of the product remains unchanged. This tactic often diverts attention from more sustainable alternatives, such as reusable bottles or biodegradable packaging, ultimately maintaining a cycle of waste despite the claim of being the "lesser evil."


Greenwashing as a marketing tool


Company Examples of Greenwashing

Enter a realm where sustainability meets corporate maneuvers. Greenwashing, the delicate dance of looking eco-friendly while straddling reality, is in the spotlight. Join us to unveil deceitful tactics and vivid examples reshaping the meaning of genuine sustainability in today's consumer world. Explore a landscape where appearances often mask the truth, where what appears green isn't always the gold standard of eco-responsibility.


BP

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. 


Volkswagen

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. 

volkswagen example of greenwashing

Nestle

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, 1.9 million children are working on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, and Nestle failed to prove it had no connection to it. 

H&M

While H&M launched initiatives like their Conscious Collection, promoting sustainable and eco-friendly fashion, some critics have accused the company of greenwashing due to its fast fashion business model, which is known for producing large amounts of clothing that contribute to environmental waste and exploitation of labor.

h&m conscious example of greenwashing

Walmart

Walmart has faced allegations of greenwashing for its claims of sustainability while continuing to be a major retailer known for selling large quantities of products that contribute to environmental issues, such as excessive packaging and unsustainable sourcing practices.


How to avoid Greenwashing

Avoiding greenwashing involves a combination of critical thinking, research, and a careful consideration of various factors. Here are some steps consumers can take to avoid falling victim to greenwashing:

  1. Research and Educate Yourself: Invest time in understanding what different environmental labels and claims actually mean. Look for credible certifications and labels from recognized third-party organizations that have transparent criteria for sustainability.

  2. Scrutinize Claims: Be skeptical of vague or overly broad claims like "all-natural" or "eco-friendly." Look for specific details and evidence that support the environmental claims made by a company or product.

  3. Check Third-Party Certifications: Look for certifications or endorsements from established and reputable organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Energy Star, or USDA Organic. These certifications often require meeting stringent environmental standards.

  4. Look Beyond Marketing: Don't solely rely on marketing materials. Investigate a company's overall practices, transparency, and commitment to sustainability through their reports, initiatives, and actual actions.

  5. Consider the Entire Lifecycle: Assess a product's entire lifecycle, from raw material sourcing to manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. A product might claim to be eco-friendly but could have significant negative impacts at other stages.

  6. Support Transparency: Favor companies that are transparent about their environmental impact, practices, and improvements. Companies openly discussing their challenges and efforts to become more sustainable are often more genuine.

  7. Support Genuine Eco-friendly Brands: Prioritize brands that have a long-term commitment to sustainability, incorporating it into their core values rather than as a marketing trend.

  8. Use Critical Thinking: Trust your instincts and use critical thinking skills when evaluating environmental claims. If something seems too good to be true or lacks evidence, it might be a red flag for greenwashing.

By staying informed, verifying claims, and supporting brands with genuine commitments to sustainability, consumers can play an active role in combating greenwashing and encouraging more responsible business practices.


In the world of sustainability and ethical consumerism, navigating the maze of greenwashing isn’t just a challenge; it's a call to action. It beckons us to be vigilant, to ask the tough questions, and to demand transparency. It's about forging a future where environmental claims aren’t just slogans on packages but backed by real, impactful change. By wielding the power of informed choices and supporting brands that walk the talk of sustainability, we aren’t just avoiding deception; we're steering the course towards a world where authenticity reigns, where every eco-friendly claim is more than just a marketing ploy but a genuine pledge to preserve our planet. It's a journey where we all play a vital role, each decision carving a path towards a greener, more honest tomorrow.


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