A 2022 Harris Poll for Google Cloud found 80% of 1,491 executives truly believe their companies are doing a commendable job on environmental sustainability. Yet, 58% of those same leaders globally, and 68% in the United States, readily admit that their companies, at times, have overstated their sustainability, or greenwashed the facts. So what is greenwashing and why should businesses avoid it? Simply put, greenwashing is an advertising or marketing spin in which green Public Relations (PR) and green marketing are employed deceptively to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies benefit the environment. This guide explains what greenwashing is, how it works, and how to not fall into that trap and, instead, make environmentally responsible purchase decisions.
What is Greenwashing?
It is a deceptive marketing practice in which a company makes exaggerated or false claims about the environmental benefits of its products, services, or policies. This is done to attract environmentally-conscious customers. Moreover, this strategy is used to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally-friendly products while improving a company’s image and sales. However, it undercuts genuine efforts to reduce product environmental impact and create a more sustainable future.
How Does Greenwashing Work
Greenwashing uses marketing tactics to create an illusion of environmental responsibility and sustainability. Additionally, here are some common ways in which greenwashing works:
- Vague or misleading claims: Companies may make claims about the environmental benefits of their products that are vague, difficult to verify, or simply false. For example, a product may be labeled ‘eco-friendly’ without any explanation as to what makes it environmentally friendly.
- Misuse of environmental labels: Companies may use environmental labels or certifications that are meaningless or not well-regarded. For example, a company may use a label that says ‘all-natural’ when the product contains synthetic ingredients.
- Hidden trade-offs: Companies may present a product as environmentally friendly while ignoring or downplaying the negative environmental impacts of other aspects of the product or the company. For example, a company may produce an energy-efficient product but still rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy production.
- Lack of transparency: Companies may not provide enough information about the environmental impact of their products or operations. This makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions. For example, a company may claim that its products are made from sustainable materials. This can be done without explaining what that means or how the sustainability of the materials is verified.
Examples of Greenwashing
Here are a few examples of businesses accused of greenwashing:
Nestle has been chastised for marketing bottled water as ‘spring water’ and ‘pure water,’ despite much of it being sourced from municipal water supplies.
In 2000, BP—rebranded as ‘Beyond Petroleum’—launched a major marketing campaign to highlight its environmental credentials. However, the company has come under fire for continuing to invest in fossil fuels and for its poor environmental and safety record.
The soft drink giant Coca-Cola was criticized for marketing Dasani bottled water as ‘pure’ and ‘sourced from natural springs,’ despite it simply being purified tap water.
Air France’s – KLM airlines were on the radar for its ‘Fly Responsibly’ program. In essence, it was marketed as reducing the airline’s carbon footprint. The program was criticized for being based on offsets, which do not reduce the company’s emissions. Moreover, it was also called out for lack of transparency about how the offsets were used.
What are the Effects of Greenwashing?
Greenwashing can have several negative consequences. These include:
- Misleading consumers: Greenwashing deceives consumers into believing that when they buy a product or use a service, they are making a positive environmental impact. However, they may be making no difference or even contributing to environmental problems.
- Undermining genuine sustainability efforts: Greenwashing undermines the efforts of companies that are genuinely trying to reduce their environmental impact and create more sustainable products.
- Discrediting environmental activism: When consumers are repeatedly exposed to false or misleading environmental claims, they may lose faith in the ability of individual actions to have a positive impact.
- Wasting resources: If consumers are misled into believing that by purchasing a product, they are making an environmental difference, they may waste resources on products that have no or limited environmental benefits.
How to Prevent Greenwashing
Greenwashing can be avoided by being informed and staying skeptical of environmental claims made by businesses. Here are a few important steps to avoid being misled:
- Look for third-party certifications: Rainforest Alliance and USDA Organic certifications provide independent verification of a company’s environmental and social sustainability practices.
- Examine a product’s entire lifecycle: Consider a product’s environmental impact from production to disposal, not just its marketing claims
- Be wary of ambiguous claims: Phrases like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ are ambiguous and unsubstantiated, so look for specific, verifiable information about a product’s environmental impact
- Conduct your research: Do not rely solely on the marketing materials of a company. In addition, look for independent, credible sources of information about a product’s or company’s environmental impact.
To summarize, greenwashing is a widespread problem in today’s market, and it can have serious consequences for the environment and dent a consumer’s trust. In addition, you can help prevent greenwashing and ensure that purchasing decisions are based on accurate information by being informed and looking deeper into the environmental claims made by companies. To learn more about greenwashing and sustainability, explore Emeritus’s online courses, created in association with top global experts. Let’s learn and work together to create a more sustainable future.
By Siddhesh Shinde
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