The dangers of “greenwashing” – what it is, how to spot it, and how to avoid it in your own business

Greenwashing is one of the most dangerous and pernicious modern phenomena.

It’s a direct effort to benefit from the growing sustainability movement. It often conceals actions that continue to exacerbate the climate crisis while falsely touting a business’s environmentally-sound credentials.

So what exactly is greenwashing? How do you spot it? And how do you avoid doing it with your own business?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the deliberate attempt to imply that a product, service, or business is good for the environment when it actually isn’t. The goal is to take advantage of growing awareness of the climate crisis and use it to motivate customers to buy products by falsely claiming they are “green”.

The term “greenwashing” was first applied to the “save the towel” movement. This was effectively a laundry costs-saving measure of some US hotels in the 1960s that encouraged customers to wash their own towel as it was “good for the planet”. (Spoilers: it wasn’t.)

In the same way that “whitewashing” broadly means a cover-up of the facts or a biased news story talking down the negatives, greenwashing tends to involve a company investing in marketing that claims they are green instead of trying to actually be green.

Why greenwashing is on the rise

There is a growing demand for environmentally-friendly products and business practices. For some companies though, this isn’t a reason to spend money on using fewer chemicals or less harmful production processes.

Instead, it’s simply a useful new motivating purchasing factor to exploit with misleading marketing. Examples are worrying commonplace:

  • Global chemical firm DuPont had actual frolicking dolphins advertising their tankers in the 90s at the same time as being one of the worst polluters in the entire world.
  • Oil giant BP popularised the phrase “carbon footprint” and switched the onus to the individual in an effort to greenwash over their huge contribution to climate change.
  • Car manufacturer Volkswagen got caught falsifying air pollution tests for its vehicles in 2015, though they later claimed they’d just “misunderstood” them.
  • Largest global plastic polluter Coca-Cola claimed it was “trying to cut down” while marketing “Coke Life”, a “green, healthy alternative”. (It wasn’t any of those things.)
  • Coca-Cola also owns “Innocent” drinks, another mass seller of one-use plastic, but one that isn’t above wildly misleading adverts that were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Many other companies have repackaged, renamed, or rebranded either themselves or their key products to greenwash into a more profitable market position. All without actually changing anything at all about the way they do business.

How to spot greenwashing

Greenwashing might be increasingly widespread. Unfortunately, it also isn’t always easy to spot. Here’s how you can try to get behind the paint job:

  1. Lack of evidence – greenwashing, by its nature, is very easy to disprove if you can see the data. Just check out recent analyses of certain carbon offsetting providers. It’s not always easy to access this data, however. Companies also often cherry-pick studies.
  2. Check the label – you can’t lie about what’s actually in a product. Look at ingredient lists, for instance, and check what those things actually are and where they come from.
  3. No specifics – companies that are actually environmentally friendly want to tell you exactly how. Look for straightforward descriptions of why they’re green right beside the claim itself. If claims are vague, you might not be dealing with the real deal.
  4. Numerical fudges – using big numbers to hide tiny increases in quality or environmental benefits is common. Imagine a product labelled “100% more sustainable!” If before it was 2% sustainable components and now it’s 4%, that’s technically true. But…
  5. All imagery, no fact – don’t let images of fluffy bunnies (or dolphins) and fresh meadows fool you. Check what words legally mean too. “Eco-friendly”, for example, doesn’t have to mean anything of the kind.
  6. No separation – some products are labelled as generally “recyclable”. Does that mean every part of the product itself? The packaging too? Even “recyclable” rubbish bags aren’t going to be removed from their contents. Is that separating claim from reality?

How to avoid greenwashing in your own business

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t like the idea of greenwashing. Avoiding doing it in your own business does take some degree of thought though. If you’re concerned, take a step back and make sure:

  • You are specific about environmental claims you make
  • You use terms with specific meanings (don’t just claim something is “eco-friendly”)
  • You aren’t being accidentally hypocritical (by using an unethical supplier, for instance)
  • You don’t have any unofficial claims dressed up as facts
  • You don’t give a misleading impression with the imagery you use

Most of these points aren’t something most of us would ever consider, but a couple could be slippery slopes if not caught early.

Because make no mistake, greenwashing is already a serious issue. In industries like oil and gas, it’s pretty much endemic. For most business leaders though, being more sustainable can be good for your bottom line and the planet too. As long as you avoid any temptation to wash things green.

Reviewing your IT usage is one way you can start thinking about making your business more sustainable. Want to talk it over with an expert?

Dial A Geek has already assisted over 900 businesses in Bristol and beyond modernise their tech.

Chat about things with Chief Geek Gildas Jones today – for FREE and with no commitment.