As the climate crisis increasingly dominates headlines and consumer culture, companies are stepping up their efforts to reduce their environmental impact. Businesses of all sizes are implementing a range of sustainable practices and highlighting their commitment to climate-friendly initiatives.
While most businesses implements meaningful carbon-reducing initiatives, there are some that misrepresent their products or activities and market them as being more environmentally sound than they actually are. This practice is known as “greenwashing” (also known as “green washing” or “green sheen”) and is considered a false advertising practice that erodes consumer confidence, harms a brand’s reputation, and creates confusion for everyone trying to participate in the fight against the climate crisis.
How Does Greenwashing Work?
To grasp the nuances of greenwashing—and avoid falling into its trap when promoting your own business or organization—it’s important to define greenwashing and understand how it works.
The standard greenwashing definition includes any corporate practice of conveying overstated, unsubstantiated, or misleading information about how environmentally sound or sustainable that company’s products or services are. It is generally used as unsubstantiated marketing or sales message to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally friendly products.
Greenwashing companies put more effort and resources into positioning themselves as environmentally friendly than into limiting their environmental impact in a way that can be verified and quantified. The goal of greenwashing is to coax environmentally conscious consumers into purchasing products or services from companies by using unsubstantiated claims that are usually general such as “natural” or “green product.” An example of greenwashing marketing may be a large carbon-emitting company simply rebranding its corporate name as a “green producer” without providing details on how or why their processes are more beneficial to the planet. Greenwashing products use packaging and advertising to suggest that they are more natural or less wasteful than competitors without additional detail.
Why is Greenwashing a Problem?
Corporate greenwashing undermines consumer confidence in a company’s products and services in general and contributes to a confusing landscape about an issue that is increasingly important to a large group of customers. Resources dedicated to greenwashing marketing could be better directed towards initiatives that truly lower a company’s environmental impact in a way that can be substantiated and provide a verifiable benefit.
Examples of Greenwashing
There are several guidelines that illustrate exactly what is greenwashing:
- Marketing and advertising that use technical jargon or terms with no clear meaning or measurable parameters, like “eco-friendly.” For example, Tide was recently called out by the National Advertising Division for marketing its Purclean laundry detergent as “plant-based” though 25% of the ingredients were not derived from plants.
- Environmentally-friendly claims that not are backed up by data or evidence, or that are fabricated or manipulated. Over the past few years, a number of automobile companies from Volkswagen to BMW were found to have lied or rigged emissions data for their “clean diesel” vehicles in lawsuits brought by consumer advocacy groups.
- Overstating the “green” aspect in environmentally-friendly products made in a polluting factory, emphasizing an irrelevantly “green” attribute in an otherwise “anti-green” product, or positioning a product as “the greenest” in a class of products that are either dirty or dangerous. Naturally, American Spirit has been long-criticized for marketing their cigarettes as eco-friendly through the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids points out that cigarettes spew thousands of chemicals into the atmosphere, including dozens that are toxic or carcinogenic
How to Avoid Greenwashing
There is a difference between greenwashing marketing and green marketing. Companies who have undertaken concrete steps to make their products and services truly sustainable can and should communicate this as part of their marketing and branding strategy. To avoid deceptive greenwashing, however, your company needs to comply with these guidelines:
- Use specific language and substantiated claims in marketing, advertising, and packaging to explain the product’s green claims.
- Don’t overstate an environmental benefit or imply a “green” attribute. Be proactive in offering data and evidence to back up your green marketing.
- Specify whether a green marketing claim refers to the entire product or its packaging, or just a portion of the product or its packaging.
The most important and effective tool to avoid corporate greenwashing is “putting your money where your mouth is” by implementing both long-term practices to minimize your company’s environmental impact as well as investing in high-quality carbon offsets to balance the remaining carbon footprint.
Many corporations that have voluntarily stepped up to reduce emissions also use offsetting as part of a carbon reduction strategy. Carbon credits cost between $4 and $12 on average, making them a cost-effective way to offset emissions while more expensive, long-term investments (solar installations, for example) are being implemented.
Offsets are not an excuse to pollute, of course, but they do offer immediate, verifiable environmental benefits alongside social benefits such as job creation, health benefits, and additional benefits to women and children especially in the developing world. Carbon offsets also encourage broader stakeholder participation in other carbon-reducing activities.
Creative Alternatives to Greenwashing with Cool Effect
Cool Effect can help you avoid greenwashing that can damage your brand. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll provide insight into a spectrum of high-quality carbon credits that both tangibly aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and effectively convey your company’s commitment to a more sustainable future.