What Is Greenwashing? Uncovering the Deceptive Tactics and How to Spot Them

What Is Greenwashing? Uncovering the Deceptive Tactics and How to Spot Them

As consumers become more and more environmentally conscious (Yay!), the demand for eco-friendly products will continue to grow. However, not all that glitters is green.

Some companies capitalize on this trend by employing deceptive marketing tactics to create a false sense of environmental responsibility. Enter "greenwashing", which often leaves well-intentioned consumers confused and misled. In this blog post, we will delve into the complex world of greenwashing, uncovering deceptive tactics, discussing the role of regulatory bodies, and providing tools to help distinguish genuine green claims from green lies.

A Brief Overview

  • Greenwashing is the deceptive practice of portraying products and services as environmentally conscious for financial gain.

  • Consumers can identify greenwashing by researching companies' environmental claims, consulting resources such as the Green Business Bureau, and staying informed about a company's sustainability efforts.

  • Genuine green marketing offers real benefits to both businesses and consumers while contributing to a greener future.

Defining Greenwashing: The Art of Deceptive Environmental Claims

Defining Greenwashing: The Art of Deceptive Environmental Claims

Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, refers to the practice of misleadingly portraying products or services as environmentally conscious when they are not. This deceptive strategy emerged in the 1960s when the environmental movement began gaining traction. As sustainability became an increasing concern, businesses found themselves in a race to be seen as environmentally friendly, leading to the widespread use of advertising to create a "green" image.

The prevalence of corporate greenwash is alarming. Research by Harris Poll indicates that 58% of C-suite and VP-level executives at global corporations have admitted to engaging in greenwashing, with this figure rising to 68% for North American companies. But what exactly does greenwashing entail, and how can consumers spot it?

Greenwashing is a derivative of "whitewashing," the practice of disseminating false information to obscure wrongdoing or an undesirable situation. In the context of the environment, greenwashing involves making misleading environmental claims to create the illusion of significant environmental benefits. Such deception not only confuses consumers, but also harms the credibility of truly environmentally friendly brands.

Types of Greenwashing: Unmasking Common Tactics

To better understand greenwashing, it's essential to recognize the common tactics employed by businesses. In this section, we will explore three main tactics: misleading labeling, vague terminology, cherry-picking data, and biased research.

Misleading Labeling

Misleading labeling is a popular greenwashing tactic, where companies use deceptive marketing to create a false impression of environmental friendliness. They may claim their brand is green based on unreliable endorsements or eco-labels, misrepresent environmental claims, or use vague marketing language and false claims in advertising.

For instance, some companies may claim their products are "all-natural," "eco-friendly," or simply "green" without providing any reliable evidence to support these claims. This form of greenwashing can lead consumers to believe they are making environmentally responsible choices when, in reality, they may be supporting unsustainable practices.

To combat misleading labeling, consumers should be cautious of unsubstantiated claims and seek reliable third-party endorsements before purchasing. By doing so, they can avoid falling victim to greenwashing and make more informed decisions about the products they choose to support.

Vague Terminology

Vague terminology is another common greenwashing tactic, where companies use ambiguous language to deceive consumers. Terms such as "sustainable," "eco-friendly," "natural," and "green" are often used without any clear definition or evidence to back up their use. This can lead to a phenomenon known as term dilution, where excessive and indiscriminate usage of terms diminishes their specificity and interchangeability.

For example, the term "natural" has become essentially devoid of meaning due to its overuse and lack of clear definition. An ingredient like arsenic, a natural pesticide, is harmful to humans and the environment, yet its "natural" label might mislead consumers into believing it is eco-friendly.

To avoid greenwashing through vague terminology, consumers should seek out factual evidence to support a company's claims and inquire about the precise implications of any ambiguous terms for each individual brand.

Cherry-Picking Data and Biased Research

Cherry-picking data and biased research are widely-used tactics in greenwashing, where companies present only positive data while omitting negative information or focus on a single positive aspect while disregarding other aspects. This selective presentation of information can manipulate consumers into believing that a company's products or services are more environmentally friendly than they truly are.

For example, a company might highlight its use of renewable energy sources while failing to mention its reliance on fossil fuels for most of its operations. This selective disclosure can deceive consumers, leading them to believe that the company is more environmentally responsible than it actually is.

To avoid falling prey to cherry-picking data and biased research, consumers should critically evaluate the information companies present and seek unbiased, third-party assessments to verify claims.

The Role of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Combating Greenwashing

In response to the prevalence of greenwashing, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines to help consumers differentiate genuine green products from those that are falsely advertised. The FTC's Green Guides, introduced in 1992, outline criteria for accurate and transparent environmental marketing.

The Green Guides aim to create a shared lexicon and standardization for accurate environmental marketing, helping consumers make informed choices about the products they purchase. Businesses can adhere to these guidelines by consulting resources such as the Green Business Bureau's business guide for effective environmental communication.

To uphold the Green Guides and combat greenwashing, the FTC takes enforcement action and imposes penalties on companies found to be using false environmental claims. This regulatory oversight helps protect consumers from misleading marketing practices and holds businesses accountable for their environmental claims.

Greenwashing Examples: Companies Caught in the Act

Greenwashing Examples

Despite the efforts of the FTC and other regulatory bodies, greenwashing remains a pervasive issue. Companies like Boohoo, H&M, Zara, Starbucks, ExxonMobil, and Coca-Cola have been accused of greenwashing.

For example, Starbucks introduced a “straw-less lid” in 2018 as a sustainability effort, but it actually contained more plastic than the previous lid-straw duo. While Starbucks acknowledged this and stated the lid is made of widely recyclable polypropylene, critics highlighted that only 9% of global plastic gets recycled and that the US often exports its recycling responsibilities to developing nations.

Coca-Cola, another high-profile example, has been accused of greenwashing by promoting bottles made with 25% marine plastic while neglecting to mention that it is the leading global plastic polluter. Then in June 2021, the Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against the sugary soda company for wrongly advertising that it is sustainable and climate friendly despite being the largest plastic polluter in the world. 

ExxonMobil, on the other hand, faced allegations from the state of Massachusetts for deceptive advertising surrounding its promotion of algae biofuels. Last year, it faced criticism for promoting its experimental algae biofuels as a future solution to lower transportation emissions, despite lacking a company-wide net-zero goal and excluding the bulk of emissions from its products in its 2025 reduction targets.

These examples highlight the need for consumers to be vigilant about the environmental claims companies make. By staying informed and critically evaluating information, consumers can avoid supporting businesses that engage in greenwashing.

Identifying Greenwashing: Tips and Tools for Consumers

Armed with the knowledge of greenwashing tactics, consumers can take active steps to identify and avoid deceptive marketing practices. To spot greenwashing, consumers can scrutinize evidence to support assertions, investigate third-party research, examine ingredient lists, and seek official validation.

By researching and validating a company's environmental claims, consumers can make more informed decisions about the products they choose to support. This not only helps them avoid falling victim to greenwashing but also encourages businesses to be more transparent and honest about their environmental practices.

In addition to individual research, consumers can also consult resources such as the Green Business Bureau and other environmental groups to stay informed about a company's sustainability efforts and track records. By staying vigilant and informed, consumers can make responsible choices and support genuine green brands.

The Impact of Greenwashing: Why It's Harmful to Businesses and Consumers

Greenwashing is not only deceptive but also harmful to both businesses and consumers. Investors and consumers seeking eco-friendly products may end up overpaying for goods that do not deliver on their environmental promises. Furthermore, greenwashing can damage a company's reputation if exposed, leading to a loss of consumer trust.

The consequences of greenwashing extend beyond financial implications. It can also undermine genuine sustainability efforts and hinder the progress of the environmental movement. When consumers are misled by greenwashing, they may be less likely to support truly environmentally sustainable initiatives.

As awareness of greenwashing grows, companies that engage in deceptive practices risk losing the trust of their customers. Edelman's Trust Barometer Special Report of 2019 highlights that only 34% of consumers believe in the brands they buy from. This shows an alarming decrease in consumer trust. To maintain consumer trust and support, businesses must prioritize transparency and honesty in their environmental marketing efforts.

Sustainable Brands: Truthful Environmental Marketing

In contrast to greenwashing, sustainable brands engage in truthful environmental marketing, where products are sold based on verifiable environmental advantages, such as the use of eco-friendly materials or sustainable production processes. These brands prioritize transparency and provide evidence-based support for their environmental claims. Examples of environmentally responsible marketing include companies such as Patagonia, IKEA, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, and Seventh Generation.

These brands serve as a model for effective environmental communication, incorporating sustainability into their business strategies and operations and accurately reporting their efforts and successes. By supporting sustainable brands, consumers can positively impact the environment and promote a culture of transparency and honesty in environmental marketing.

This, in turn, encourages more businesses to adopt genuine green practices and contribute to a greener future.

Green Marketing vs. Greenwashing: Understanding the Difference

Green marketing and greenwashing may seem similar at first glance, but they are fundamentally different. Green marketing involves offering products or services with genuine environmental benefits, while greenwashing is deceptive and misleading. It's crucial for companies to be transparent and honest about their environmental practices to avoid misleading consumers and contributing to the problem of greenwashing.

One way for companies to ensure their green marketing efforts are genuine is by being transparent with customers about their practices and providing supporting evidence to verify their claims. By doing so, they can build trust with their audience and differentiate themselves from competitors engaging in greenwashing.

As consumers, it's essential to be able to distinguish between green marketing and greenwashing. By staying informed, critically evaluating information, and supporting transparent and honest businesses, consumers can make a positive impact on the environment and contribute to a more sustainable future.


In conclusion, greenwashing is a deceptive marketing tactic that has infiltrated various industries, misleading consumers into believing that certain products and services are more environmentally friendly than they truly are. We hope we've shed some light on the tactics used in greenwashing, the role of regulatory bodies in combating it, and the importance of supporting genuine green brands.

As consumers, we are responsible for staying informed, critically evaluating the environmental claims made by companies, and supporting businesses that prioritize transparency and honesty in their environmental marketing efforts. By doing so, we can contribute to a greener and more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of greenwashing?

Greenwashing is an unethical marketing strategy that makes environmental claims that are not supported by any evidence, in order to mislead the public about a product or company's environmental impact.

This deceptive practice can make it difficult for customers to differentiate between genuinely sustainable products and those that are pretending to be eco-friendly.

What is greenwashing in simple words?

Greenwashing is the process of making false or misleading environmental claims to promote a product or service. It is usually done to deceive customers into believing that an organization is more environmentally conscious than it actually is.

Greenwashing is a growing problem in the modern world as companies try to capitalize on the public's increasing awareness of environmental issues. Consumers should be aware of greenwashing and take steps to ensure that they are properly disposed of.

What are the three types of greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies mislead customers into thinking their products or services are environmentally friendly. Three main types of greenwashing are hidden trade-offs, absence of proof, and vague claims.

Companies use these strategies to make it appear as if their operations are more sustainable than they actually are.

What are the 7 sins of greenwashing?

The seven sins of greenwashing are: False Labeling, No Proof, Vagueness, Irrelevance, Lesser of Two Evils, Fibbing and Worshipping False Labels. These sins are employed by companies in order to deceive consumers into buying their products, often through misrepresenting environmental credentials.

As such, it is important that consumers remain aware of the potential for greenwashing and thoroughly research any environmental claims before making a purchase.

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