What is Greenwashing and how do I spot it?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to the practice of marketing a business' 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 and has since become one of the most controversial trends in how self-professed "sustainable businesses" market themselves today.
What does Greenwashing look like?
✏️ Fluffy or overly-generic language
Sustainable-focused marketing can often be saturated with buzzwords such as "green", "eco-friendly" or "sustainable", which are often chosen to communicate a sense of environmentalism to a consumer without any requirement to substantiate these claims.
Brands that are more honest in their environmental ambitions will typically elaborate further on any claims they make, so watch out for statements from companies that seem to gloss over how "eco-friendly" they are in a 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 businesses will use to greenwash users involves the provision of numbers such as grams of CO2 emitted or energy consumed in kWh without any relative points of data to compare these numbers against. This can leave users thinking that a business is relatively eco-friendly while their numbers can actually be far above the industry average when looked at under the microscope.
How to spot Greenwashing
Before committing to support a business you're worried might be utilising greenwashing tactics, do your research and try to determine whether the business' claims are authentic and can be substantiated. Typically, a website's footer or dedicated 'about' page are great place to starts, as most businesses will look to include any 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 would actively look to buy products and services from sustainable businesses.
In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Twente, it was 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, with the study finding that there is a far weaker link between actual greenwashing and how easy attempts at greenwashing 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
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 U.K. 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".
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.
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."
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".
One of the most well-known greenwashing scandals in recent memory, Volkswagen were forced to admit in 2015 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 defeat devices designed to cheat emissions tests and further the company's promotion of green diesel as a viable alternative to hybrid or electric cars.
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 in 2015.
How to avoid Greenwashing in your own marketing efforts
😇 Be honest & truthful
One of the most important things to consider when running any form of marketing campaign is to ensure 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 determined that there was a direct correlation between how transparent a brand is and how much trust their customers place in that brand. According to the report, 94% of all consumers are far more likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, with 73% of respondents stating that they would be willing to pay more for a product that offers complete transparency across the board.
Most countries around the world have specific laws in place to protect consumers against deliberate corporate deception, and here in the United Kingdom, the Government's Competition and Markets Authority makes it very clear what does and does not 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, preventing recycling”.
⚖️ 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.
Try to 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), and focus instead of 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 a user is able to verify this information for themselves. For more technical claims, aim to back these up using international standards or accreditations used by 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 some of the methods utilised in the practice can often be illegal, particularly when it comes to misleading commercial practices or practices that attempt to obscure material information.
- 🇬🇧 Here in the United Kingdom, this is covered by Regulations 5 and 6 of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act (2008)
- 🇪🇺 In the EU, this is covered by Articles 6 and 7 of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005
- 🇺🇸 In the United States of America, this is covered by §5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act 1914
- 🇦🇺 In Australia, this is covered by Section 18 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010
For businesses based in the United Kingdom, 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 that businesses "will not benefit from their environmentally-friendly behaviours when they are merely taking credit for complying with legal obligations".
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