Greenwashing: What is it? How to spot it? And how to stop it?

🤔 (Unsplash/Brian Yurasits)

It’s sadly not an overstatement to say that we’re facing an environmental crisis, and that businesses are largely to blame.

But with the pressure now on to change for the better, being sustainable has become a popular move for any brand – you can win a lot of fans, and a lot of business. Emphasis, however, needs to be on the ‘can'.

On the intersection between business and sustainability, you’ll find a wide spectrum. On one end of the scale, there are businesses that have sustainability in their DNA and aren’t afraid to put planet over profit (hello 👋). On the other, there are businesses that don’t give a monkey’s.

Somewhere towards that latter end of the spectrum there are businesses that claim to be having a positive impact, but really aren’t; brands that want all the goodness that can come with sustainable initiatives and values without putting the hard yards in.

Fortunately, these businesses can often easily be found out, and receive the label of ‘greenwashing’ for their troubles. But what does that mean?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies falsely promote their products, policies or themselves as environmentally friendly – or green – when they’re in fact not. They do this to try and capitalise on the growing demand for products and brands that are sustainable.

Sadly committed by many brands, greenwashing can take many forms. It can be the use of vague language, hiding key details, misrepresenting facts and figures and outright lies.

An example of greenwashing could be a brand emphasising a small but eco-friendly feature of a product while ignoring the less eco-friendly stuff. Another could be making a vague claim about a product – like it being ‘all-natural’ – without saying what that really means.

After reading those two examples, you may now be thinking that you’ve actually seen a lot of greenwashing in your time. And you’d probably be right!

Why do brands greenwash?

Brands often resort to greenwashing for three main reasons.

To win over new customers

Many people now prefer to buy products from companies that are environmentally responsible – up to as many as four in five people, in fact – and businesses greenwash to take advantage of this trend.

To stand out

Environmental responsibility is a great way to stand out nowadays. This is compelling businesses to use greenwashing as a tool to boost their brand, differentiate themselves from competitors and attract investors.

To be compliant with regulations

That’s right – some of the worst offenders even use greenwashing tactics to give the impression of compliance with environmental regulations and standards (even when their commitment to these standards is minimal or non-existent).

How can I spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing may be becoming a hotter topic, but it’s becoming increasingly tricky to spot it. But spotting it is far from impossible, especially with a dubious eye and some due diligence.

Here are a few tips to help you become a greenwashing detective:

  • Be wary of vague language with no evidence behind it. Terms like 'eco-friendly', 'natural' and 'green' are the main culprits and are often manipulated to mean virtually anything. Seeing them in use should raise your suspicions
  • Look out for irrelevant claims, like bragging about a single green initiative or product feature. Greenwashing brands often do this to divert attention from the bigger issues – like an oil company putting a lot of focus on its investments in renewable energy, while getting 99% of its revenue from oil
  • Be conscious of what brands aren’t talking about, or what they’re saying with deliberate murkiness – a lack of transparency is a classic greenwashing sign
  • Keep an eye out for the 'lesser of two evils' tactic, like a cigarette company claiming its product is 'green' because it uses organic tobacco

How can I stop greenwashing?

‘What difference can one person make in stopping this?’

It’s very easy and common to feel this way. While individuals may not be able to entirely stop companies from greenwashing single handedly, you can certainly make a difference.

First things first, educate yourself. Learn about what true sustainability looks like – and the common tactics for false sustainability – to help yourself make better informed choices.

Next, research before you buy – for brands you’ve never bought from before and even the brands you’re a regular customer of. Does the company provide clear, specific information about why their product is environmentally friendly? Do they offer any evidence to support their claims? Big questions, but ones you can easily answer with a bit of digging.

If you find that a company is vague about their environmental practices, don't be afraid to ask them about it. If enough people demand transparency, companies may feel pressured to provide it. And if you don’t get the answer you’re looking for and you believe the business is engaging in greenwashing, you have the power to report them to regulators for false or misleading claims.

On the flip side, support genuinely green brands. Yes, there are tonnes of greenwashers out there, but there are also many brands that truly care about the environment and are taking big steps to minimise their impact. By supporting these companies, you can help them succeed and encourage other companies to follow in their footsteps.

Finally, get other people involved. Talk to your friends, family and your social media followers (if you have them) about greenwashing and how to spot it.

The more people know about it, the less effective it will be.