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Greenwashing: Definition, examples, and how to avoid it

Updated: Mar 4

In today's competitive business environment, where environmental awareness is on the rise, greenwashing has emerged as a pressing concern. Brands across various sectors, from fashion to automotive, are facing scrutiny over their questionable claims of eco-friendliness. As consumers become more discerning, the need for transparency and authenticity in environmental messaging has never been greater.



What is greenwashing?


The term "greenwashing" is a portmanteau of the words "green" and "whitewashing”. The term was coined in the late 1980s in the United States, and it has since gained widespread usage in both the business and environmental communities. This concept emerged as a response to the growing awareness of environmental issues in the late 20th century. As consumers became more interested in sustainability and eco-friendliness, some companies began to make false or exaggerated claims about their environmental performance to appeal to this market.


Greenwashing refers to the practice of making false or misleading claims about a company's environmental practices to appear more sustainable or eco-friendly. This form of false advertising aims to deceive consumers into believing that a product or service is environmentally friendly, even when this may not be the case. Greenwashing is a marketing strategy that is used to promote a more virtuous image of a company's activities, even when the environmental impact of these activities may be minimal or nonexistent. It is a way for companies to abuse ecological or sustainable development arguments for their benefit, rather than for the benefit of the environment.



Some examples of greenwashing.


More and more companies want to improve their image by appearing more sustainable, highlighting one or more ecological aspects of their products and services. However, this communication can sometimes go too far and is not in line with the company's practices or the composition of its products. Greenwashing can take many forms, from blatant to subtle, and many brands have been criticized for engaging in this practice.


There are many ways companies can engage in greenwashing, such as using green colouring on packaging or logos, promoting environmental slogans, using eco-friendly visuals (such as plants or landscapes), creating an "ecological" label, etc. These techniques are often used to create the impression that a company is more environmentally friendly than it is, even when its actual environmental impact may be minimal or nonexistent.


Greenwashing in the fashion industry

H&M has been criticized for its "Conscious" collection, which claimed to be made from more ethical and eco-friendly materials. However, the brand provided very little information about the environmental impact of these clothes. Other examples include Zara and its "efficient" stores, or even Adidas and its 50% recycled Stan Smith shoes.


Greenwashing in the automotive industry

Several car brands have used greenwashing to improve their image, often with disastrous results. The Volkswagen "dieselgate" scandal of 2015 is a prime example of this, where the company lied about the emissions levels of its vehicles. Other brands that have been accused of greenwashing in the automotive industry include Peugeot or General Motors and its 1000 horsepower electric Hummer.


Other examples of greenwashing

Some well-known or lesser-known cases of greenwashing:




How greenwashing can harm businesses?


Greenwashing may seem like a convenient marketing tactic, but its consequences can be severe for businesses that engage in it. By misleading consumers about environmental practices, companies risk damaging their reputation, eroding customer trust, facing legal repercussions, and struggling to secure investment. 


Reputational damage


One of the most significant risks of greenwashing is the potential for reputational damage. When companies are exposed for making false or exaggerated environmental claims, their credibility takes a hit. Consumers feel deceived and betrayed, leading to a loss of trust in the brand. This tarnished reputation can be difficult to repair and can result in long-term damage to customer relationships and brand loyalty.


Legal penalties


Greenwashing can also expose companies to legal liability if their deceptive marketing practices violate consumer protection or false advertising laws. Regulators may impose fines or other sanctions on companies found guilty of greenwashing, further damaging their finances and reputation. In extreme cases, legal action resulting from greenwashing allegations can lead to costly litigation and settlements, undermining profitability and shareholder confidence.


Loss of customer trust


Greenwashing can alienate customers who value transparency and authenticity in their purchasing decisions. When companies prioritize marketing gimmicks over genuine environmental stewardship, consumers feel misled and disillusioned. As a result, they may seek out competitors with a more credible commitment to sustainability, leading to a loss of market share and revenue for the greenwashing company.



How companies can avoid greenwashing?


To maintain trust with stakeholders and ensure that their environmental claims are accurate and honest, companies must steer clear of greenwashing.

To prevent greenwashing, they should:

  • Be transparent: Openly share their environmental practices, including challenges and steps taken to address them.

  • Be specific: Provide detailed insights into the environmental benefits of their products or practices, avoiding vague claims and instead focusing on tangible outcomes such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or resource conservation.

  • Be verifiable: Support environmental assertions with evidence, whether through third-party certifications like LEED or B Corp, or by publishing data on environmental performance.

  • Be consistent: Align environmental claims with overall business practices, such as implementing recycling programs or investing in renewable energy initiatives to support sustainability commitments.

  • Be honest: Avoid making false or exaggerated claims about environmental performance, and instead, be transparent about any shortcomings or mistakes.


By adhering to these best practices, companies can effectively avoid greenwashing and ensure their environmental claims are accurate and credible.



The European Union adopts a law banning greenwashing.


With the Green Claims Directive, the European Union aims to combat greenwashing practices.


In early 2024, the Parliament approved this directive aiming to improve product labeling and prohibit the use of misleading environmental claims. This move follows growing concerns regarding greenwashing practices, where companies make unsubstantiated claims about the sustainability or environmental impact of their products to influence consumer purchasing decisions. According to a study published by the European Commission, approximately 53% of companies' environmental claims are considered "vague, misleading, or unsubstantiated", and 40% are deemed "completely lacking in foundation"


The Green Claims Directive seeks to establish stricter regulations to govern these claims by prohibiting unsupported generic statements and requiring tangible evidence for any environmental assertion. This regulation aims to promote more transparent advertising and enable consumers to make informed choices regarding sustainable purchases.



Transparency is key!


Many companies are trying to communicate about their ecological and sustainable development efforts in their marketing. However, these claims often lack proof or specific data to support them. The key to combating greenwashing is transparency. By being open and explicit about their practices, companies can provide evidence of their commitment to sustainability and allow consumers to make informed decisions.


Communication campaigns should be transparent, and explicit, and avoid exaggeration to avoid misleading consumers and provide access to evidence of the company's sustainability efforts.



Going further


To improve your image with consumers and demonstrate a genuine, effective ecological approach, consider conducting a carbon footprint or a life cycle assessment or obtaining certification for your data. This will allow you to communicate effectively and with evidence.




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