What is Greenwashing and How Do You Spot it?



You are probably familiar with the term whitewash; it originally simply meant to cover the surface of a building with white liquid to conceal its faults. However, in 1851, the term took on a figurative meaning: any unsavory facts that are deliberately covered up or glossed over are said to be whitewashed. Like whitewashing, the term greenwashing also deals with deception. It refers to the practice of companies making ambiguous or misleading claims suggesting that they are environmentally friendly when that may not necessarily be the truth. It is easy enough for companies to label their products or practices as being organic, eco-friendly, green, sustainable, or natural, but unless they can quantifiably prove their claims, they are greenwashing. In other words, they are spending more energy marketing themselves as helping the environment than actually doing anything substantive.

Examples of greenwashing:

BP, which used to be British Petroleum but rebranded itself as Beyond Petroleum in 2001, spent €800,000 on a social media campaign in the UK this year touting its investments in green energy. The green investments they describe are minimal when compared against their “current energy production and investment behavior,” according to an article in The Guardian, not to mention their intention of opening up new oil and gas fields. According to a complaint filed by Client Earth in 2019, BP also widely publicized the solar panels on their gas stations and extolled their low-carbon energy products in campaigns called “Keep Advancing,” and “Possibilities Everywhere,” while more than 96% of their annual spending is on oil and gas.

Coca-Cola has announced with much fanfare on their bottles the fact that they are “made using 25% ocean plastic,” without acknowledging that Coca-Cola has been named the world’s worst plastic polluter for the past four years in a row (Brand Audit Report 2021). In addition, the company has been part of a lobbying effort to prevent a system for deposits and returns in Spain.  In fact, you probably use products made by the top 5 plastic polluters on a regular basis without even thinking about it.

H & M’s “Conscious Choice” clothing brand was launched with the advertising mission statement, “Shop our selection of sustainable fashion pieces that make you both look and feel good.” This was criticized by the Norwegian Customer Authority because there was insufficient information given about actual sustainability, despite the use of such buzzwords as organic, recycled, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. A class action suit against H&M says that despite its claims that the “Conscious Choice” brand is sustainable and environmentally friendly, its clothing is made of recycled polyester, which “will likely end up in a landfill because its fibers are weakened as they are mechanically recycled from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.”

Common greenwashing tactics

  • Using language that sounds good but which isn’t quantifiable. Words such as eco-friendly and sustainable don’t have clear or verifiable meanings.
  • Promoting a slight positive while ignoring the greater unpalatable truth.
  • Illustrating labels with images of trees, mountains, grass, and other “natural” scenes that give consumers the impression that they are buying a green product but actually mean nothing.
  • Claiming to be greener than competitors, even though the difference is minuscule and despite the fact that all similar products are unsafe for the environment.
  • Enlarging “green” type terms on labels and burying the truth in extremely fine print that is difficult to read.
  • Placing the word “recyclable” prominently on a label without explaining whether that term applies to the entire product, part of the product, or merely the packaging.
  • Claiming a product is made with recycled materials when only a small percentage of their raw materials are actually recycled.
  • Partnering with other organizations to claim that together they’ve achieved closed-loop manufacturing, when the resulting product actually ends up in landfill at it’s end of life.

Why do companies greenwash?

In general, people want to help the environment, and many consumers are willing to pay more for a product if they know that it is sustainable, recyclable, made from recycled materials, or environmentally friendly. It makes sense for companies to market to these individuals.  Yet, greenwashing has diminished the trust consumers have in many companies.

  • 65% of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) rate sustainability as being more important to them than buying brand names.
  • 64% of Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980) consumers feel the same way.
  • 75% of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) have indicated that they will spend more for a product with a sustainable brand.
  • 75% of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) consumers make a habit of buying from brands that practice sustainability.

How to avoid being fooled by greenwashing

  • All green claims should be clearly explained on the company’s products and in their advertising.
  • Be wary of buzzwords (like organic or eco-friendly) that don’t have specific meanings.
  • Environmental marketing claims should specify whether they apply to the product, the package, or a portion of either.
  • Marketing claims should be specific and verifiable.
  • Look for stamps of approval, such as the EPA’s Green Seal for cleaning products or B Corp Certification.
  • Do your research about the brands and companies you buy from. Read their MSDS sheets and specifications to see if their products are recycled and recyclable.
  • Does the company take responsibility for their products at end of life, meaning collect and return them for recycling or upcycling?

The FTC publishes their Green Guides to provide advertising standards for environmental claims, but the last update was in 2012 and much has changed since then.  Another revision is currently in the works and the FTC is seeking public comment regarding the updates.  A recent article by Mary Catherine O’Connor of Wastedive provides some history of the problems with enforcement of the current Green Guides and the efforts of multiple states attorneys general and various stakeholders to give them some needed teeth.  To effectively eliminate greenwashing, they can’t be left as ‘guides’, but require nationwide enforcement and clear instructions on packaging that explains how to recycle the item/packaging that the average consumer can understand.  Exaggerated claims of ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘recyclable’ must be backed up with facts that substantiate them.

Some companies are legitimately green

Many companies have a genuine desire to protect our planet and operate with the intention of leaving people and the planet better off. They are transparent, ethical, and environmentally conscious.

Polly Products has always been fully invested in sustainability, proudly providing durable alternatives to materials that could deplete natural resources and add to landfill waste.

Polly Products maintains the highest standards for ecological conservation in both its business practices and its product development. As an ethical brand, we understand that environmental activism and the creation of sustainable technologies are not just fads—they are the future.

We invite you to read our Green Promise and full mission PDF which explains the green initiatives for our products and business practices in detail.

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