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5 Signs of Greenwashing—And How to Avoid Doing It Yourself

John Boitnott

Jan 2, 2020

More companies are evaluating their focus on environmental practices and corporate social responsibility. However, asserting a commitment to the environment and actually adhering to “green” practices are two different things. 

Greenwashing the Public

In recent years, many consumers have called out companies for what’s known as “greenwashing.” This refers to making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a particular company practice or decision. In doing so, companies create the illusion they’re more environmentally friendly than they really are. 

Here are some examples of greenwashing and how companies and their communications teams can avoid it while recommitting to green practices.

1. Contributing to nonprofits for a certain disease—and then selling unhealthy products known to cause those diseases

What do you make of a company that contributes to the American Heart Association yet sells fast food to customers? Or a business that makes candy, yet donates to charities dedicated to diabetes awareness?  

To avoid this type of corporate greenwashing, make sure your product lines include healthy products that contain natural ingredients. If a wholesale healthy menu makeover isn’t possible, then focus on ensuring your messaging around product features is both accurate and transparent. Once you’ve aligned your business practices with the marketing message you’d like to share, look at top healthcare brands who got it right for inspiration.

2. Encouraging recycling—but selling products harmful to the environment or providing plastic bags for customers to take recycled items home

Even if a retailer means well and shares messages about the value of recycling, they may not have completely thought through just how green their actual business practices are.

Also, to be meaningful in your approach to environmentalism, help your customers adhere to “green” principles. Consider the following tactics:

  • Align your environmental values with your product portfolio and purchase processes
  • Review your product mix and see if you can work with more eco-friendly vendors
  • Collect items for recycling through a dedicated area in your store or by collecting items upon delivery of other goods
  • Offer your own branded reusable bags and hand them out to customers
  • If you’re primarily an online business, reduce packaging and shipping materials

3. Making environmental claims the company is already legally required to provide

Boasting about how you’re helping the environment is considerably less impressive when you are only doing it because it’s the law. Having a green mindset should mean more than simply doing what you’re already obligated to do. 

Stay away from this type of dishonest marketing message. Focus on how you go “above and beyond” for the environment. If you aren’t making an extra effort, then silence is the better option—at least until you develop a truly green operation or process. 

4. Lobbying against environmental measures behind the scenes—while leadership and comms regularly deliver pro-environmental messages

This may be one of the worst types of greenwashing because it can highlight the deceptive lengths certain companies go to in order to project an environmentally sound image. Many companies publicly declare their environmental focus but secretly hire lobbyists to influence legislators to defeat “green” initiatives that may adversely impact the company’s profitability. 

Consider your priorities and values before publicly taking a stand on social media or elsewhere. If you aren’t ready to commit fully to the environment, then don’t make those claims. Deliver marketing messages that are transparent, honest and accurate. Take a look at examples of big brands that decided to mix PR and politics for learning lessons and what to do—and what to avoid.

5. Putting inaccurate environmentally friendly claims on your labels

This is especially egregious when savvy consumers can simply use sites like Ecolabel Index to see the truth. Many greenwashers do it anyway, hoping their customers are too busy to fact-check labels and claims.

Focus on making evidence-backed claims about environmental impacts. To build credibility, some companies are using RFID labels that let customers scan and get access to third-party certification and lab reports. The additional information validates material sourcing, manufacturing processes and the company’s carbon footprint.

The Opposite of Greenwashing: Incremental Change and Transparency

Completely revamping processes and business models to become more environmentally friendly takes significant resources. Eliminating use of fossil fuels or fully embracing renewable energy is an uphill battle. No one can reasonably expect a company to make dramatic transformations overnight. 

Instead, focus on creating transparency and highlighting areas where you can illustrate incremental changes.

Before declaring yourself a green company, define what it means to your team and identify pathways to effectively address this definition. Get everyone in the company to commit to being more green, from board members and executives to customer-facing staff and suppliers. 

Finally, establish green goals and monitor your company’s progress. Share real results, when applicable, with your stakeholders so they see your environmental commitment in action. With this green marketing approach, they join you on the journey to greater sustainability, and may even end up more loyal to your brand in the process.

Tip: Download our free Switching to Sustainable Societies Report

Always Be Prepared

Even if you’ve avoided these challenges, you’ll want to have your crisis strategy in place whenever you take on issues that can be divisive. Read our comprehensive ebook on preparing—and avoiding—for brand crisis.

Psst. You may also be interested in Meltwater's Media Impact Analysis on IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report.

The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), a series by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), looks at the current state of the climate, including how climate change is progressing and the role of human influence in this process. After a stark 'code red for humanity' warning was issued by IPCC, the Sixth Assessment report was highly covered by the media. We wanted to better understand the media's reaction to this. Take a look a what we found here.