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Matt Campbell, Lead Designer at Noughts & Ones
Matt CLead Designer

What is greenwashing and how do I spot it?

  • Insights
  • 14 Jun 22
    Banner with picture of the earth and the words 'one world'

    What is Greenwashing?

    Greenwashing refers to the practice of marketing a business's products or services to the public as more beneficial or less harmful to the environment than they actually are.

    The term was originally coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay on the hotel industry's promotion of reusing towels to save the environment. Since then it's become one of the most controversial trends in how self-professed "sustainable businesses" market themselves today.

    How to spot greenwashing

    Greenwashing is designed to blend in with sustainability claims made by truly honest and ethical businesses, and is deliberately intended to be as difficult to identify as possible. Thankfully, and with a keen eye, there are certain tactics used across the majority of greenwashed marketing claims that can be easy to spot once you know what to look for.

    Let's take a look at some of the most common tactics used by companies that use greenwashing as a marketing tactic, and what you can do to avoid falling for their false claims.

    ✏️ Fluffy or overly-generic language

    Sustainable-focused marketing can often be saturated with buzzwords like "green", "eco-friendly" or "sustainable". They're chosen to communicate a sense of environmentalism to a consumer without any evidence to substantiate these claims.

    Brands that are more honest in their environmental ambitions will typically elaborate further on any claims they make. Watch out for statements from companies that gloss over how "eco-friendly" they are in as few words as possible.

    🧠 Confusing claims and isolated statistics

    Conversely, it can be all too easy for brands to overload their customers with an inordinate amount of technical information in an attempt to mask their claims of sustainable business practices.

    A common trick used to greenwash is to use numbers such as grams of CO2 emitted or energy consumed in kWh without any relative points of data to compare them against. This can leave users thinking that a business is relatively eco-friendly but in reality, their numbers can actually be far above the industry average when looked at under the microscope.

    🏆 Lack of accreditations or certifications

    Before committing to support a business you're worried might be utilising greenwashing tactics, do your research and try to determine whether their claims are authentic and can be substantiated. Typically, a website's footer or dedicated 'about' page are a great place to start. Most businesses will include references to their environmental awards or certifications here.

    Also consider looking at whether a company is officially registered in online directories such as B Corporation and FSC, or whether they have publicly pledged to act on their environmental obligations through third-party organisations and support networks.

    Here at Noughts & Ones, we're signed up to Ecologi, Better Business Act, The Sustainable Creative Charter, Climate Action Tech, as part of our mission to help businesses we admire do good things for the planet.

    How does greenwashing affect a brand's reputation?

    Alongside extremely costly lawsuits, greenwashing as a practice can also negatively affect a brand's reputation and public image, particularly in an increasingly climate-first culture where 81% of consumers actively want to buy products and services from sustainable businesses.

    A study conducted by the University of Twente, found that "greenwashing has detrimental effects on people’s image of a brand" resulting in directly "negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behavioural intentions toward the organisation".

    However, this statement only proved to be true in cases where it was found that consumers were convinced that the organisation deliberately misled the public. Determining whether a campaign was purposefully deceptive proved far more difficult. The study found that there is a far weaker link between actual greenwashing and how easy attempts at it are to spot, "which might be due to a lack of skills in distinguishing true from false claims".

    Examples of corporate greenwashing in the real world

    From deliberate corporate spin and deception to vague promises with no real plan to deliver, more and more businesses are being publicly exposed for using greenwashing in their marketing tactics.

    Let's take a look at some of the most famous examples over the past few years, including what false claims they made, and how each of these businesses were caught out and ultimately shamed by the general public.

    ⛽️ BP

    Already facing increasingly negative public opinion following the largest marine oil spill in history, BP were found guilty of greenwashing in late 2019 when environmental charity ClientEarth lodged a complaint against the fossil fuel giant's 'Keep Advancing' and 'Possibilities Everywhere' advertising campaigns. These campaigns attempted to spin BP as a low-carbon energy producer, despite more than 96% of their annual budget going directly into environmentally-damaging oil and gas technologies.

    BP were forced to pull both campaigns after being placed under review by the UK Government's National Contact Point (NCP). While an official decision on the legal status of the campaign's claim was never reached, the NCP stated that ClientEarth had a "legitimate interest in acting out on the campaigns", and their concerns were "material and substantiated".

    🥤 Coca-Cola

    On World Oceans Day 2021, the non-profit organisation Earth Island Institute began an ongoing lawsuit against The Coca-Cola Company based on claims of greenwashing in their 'Our Planet Matters' and 'World Without Waste' campaigns. These campaigns describe Coca-Cola's mission to actively collect and recycle one bottle or can for each product it sells over the next ten years.

    Earth Island Institute's primary claim was to point out the hypocrisy in The Coca-Cola Company's positioning of themselves as an environmentally-conscious business, given that Break Free From Plastic’s annual audit found the company to be the world's worst plastic polluter three years in a row, a number far higher than the next top two plastic polluters (Pepsi and Nestlé) combined.

    If successful, the lawsuit will prevent Coca-Cola from falsely advertising its current business model as sustainable in the near future.

    🦉 Nestlé

    From exploitative water-bottling tactics during the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to getting third-world mothers hooked on their branded baby formula in the 1970s, Nestlé is no stranger to controversy, particularly when it comes to their environmental and humanitarian commitments.

    In 2018, Nestlé's pledge to build a world where "none of our packaging, including plastics, ends up in landfill or as litter, including in oceans, lakes or rivers" was met with criticism by environmental groups like Greenpeace, who pointed out that the world's largest food and drinks producers had released no clear targets and timelines to achieve their plan, and had actually scaled-up their overall rate of plastic production, with a 13% increase of plastic (totalling 1.7 million tonnes) produced compared to the previous year.

    In conversation with EcoWatch, Greenpeace oceans campaigner Graham Forbes stated that Nestlé's "statement is full of ambiguous or nonexistent targets, relies on ‘ambitions’ to do better, and puts the responsibility on consumers rather than the company to clean up its own plastic pollution."

    🛩 Ryanair

    Listed as one of Europe's top ten biggest polluters in data published by the European Commission in 2019, Irish airline RyanAir recently faced accusations of greenwashing after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an advertising campaign claiming that Ryanair was "Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline".

    The ASA were quick to point out that not only was some of the data submitted in defence to the watchdog taken from 2011, but emissions data from some of Ryanair's biggest competitors was also missing from their comparisons.

    Ryanair stated that their claims were based on CO2 emissions emitted per passenger, per kilometre travelled, but a rebuttal from the Advertising Standards Authority noted that these claims failed to take into account the number of seats actually available on the planes in Ryanair's fleet, "significant information that consumers needed in order to understand the basis of the claim".

    🚙 Volkswagen

    In one of the most well-known greenwashing scandals in recent memory, in 2015 Volkswagen were forced to admit that despite claims of low-carbon emissions in their "green diesel" vehicles, an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had found that nearly 11 million diesel VW vehicles (including Audis, Seats and Skodas) were fitted with devices designed to cheat emissions tests.

    These cheat devices were manufactured specifically to monitor speed, engine operation, air pressure and steering wheel positioning to identify when the car was likely to be in the process of being tested, upon which the turbocharged direct-injection engines would temporarily produce up to 40 times less NOx than the car would regularly emit under typical driving conditions.

    Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was forced to resign as a direct result of the scandal, and as of December 2021, more than 90,000 customers are seeking compensation after purchasing cars manufactured by the Volkswagen Group. To date, over £25bn has already been spent globally on legal fees, direct compensation and vehicle buyback agreements since the scandal first broke.

    How to avoid greenwashing in your own marketing efforts

    While some companies make a deliberate effort to use deception and greenwashing as a marketing tactic, some businesses can accidentally greenwash their own marketing campaigns due to a lack of supporting evidence or by making claims that are simply too vague to be verified.

    In order to avoid accidentally using greenwashing tactics in your own marketing efforts, we've put together a checklist of four simple steps that you can take in order to ensure that any sustainability claims your business makes are well-received by a growing, environmentally-conscious audience.

    😇 Be honest & truthful

    Always make sure that your claims are honest, accurate and truthful. Not only is this important from a legal standpoint, but also when it comes to a brand's relationship with its customers.

    A 2016 study by LabelInsight found a direct correlation between how transparent a brand is and how much trust its customers place in it. According to the report, 94% of consumers are likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, with 73% stating they'd be willing to pay more for a product that offers complete transparency across the board.

    Most countries have specific laws in place to protect consumers against deliberate corporate deception. Here in the UK, the Government's Competition and Markets Authority makes it very clear what does and doesn't constitute honest claims in regards to sustainability.

    For example, when it comes to recycling, “businesses must not claim, or otherwise give the impression, that a product is ‘recyclable’ if it is not, or if only parts of it are and others are not”.

    ⚖️ Make accurate comparisons

    When comparing your products and services to other brands, make sure to keep your comparisons fair and accurate, including any references where necessary so that your customers are able to also easily draw the same conclusions that you have.

    Avoid comparing statistics that don't directly correlate to each other (for example comparing CO2 emissions of one product against kWh of energy consumed by another). Focus instead on making more obvious "apples to apples" comparisons.

    📝 Substantiate your claims

    A good rule of thumb when making any type of product or service claim is to ensure you're able to justify these claims using provable and repeatable research.

    For example, if your website professes to be "cleaner than 57% of web pages tested", then be sure to include a reference point so that users can verify this information. For more technical claims, back these up using international standards or accreditations from reputable organisations where possible (ISO, Ecolabel, FSC for example).

    Over time, having a proven history of working from a reliable source of evidence helps you business appear far more trustworthy and establishes a more honest and long-lasting relationship with your customers.

    👨‍⚖️ Understand your legal requirements

    In addition to being highly unethical, greenwashing and its related methods are often illegal, particularly when it comes to misleading commercial practices or practices that attempt to obscure material information.

    For businesses based in the UK, we recommend checking out the Competition and Markets Authority's 'Green Claims Code', which provides further guidance on how to ensure your environmental claims are genuinely green.

    While meeting legal requirements are an essential step in ensuring a successful sustainability-focused marketing campaign, it should be noted that research suggests businesses "will not benefit from their environmentally-friendly behaviours when they are merely taking credit for complying with legal obligations".

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