What is Greenwashing? How to Spot and Avoid It

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“Greenwashing” – it’s a deceptive practice that can trick even the most diligent consumer.  At its core, greenwashing is the crafty art of making a company or organization appear more environmentally friendly than it truly is.  Think of it as a mask of sustainability hiding a less-than-green reality.

As consumers, we’re putting more time and effort than ever before on making thoughtful purchases. We’re reading labels, doing background checks on brands, and striving to choose products that help, not harm, our planet.  You may have seen products on shelves labeled “all-natural,” “environment-friendly,” or “100% recycled packaging.” While these claims can be genuine, unfortunately, they are not always as green as they appear.

In fact, this consumer demand has triggered a trend where companies attempt to appear more eco-friendly than they really are.  Consider this: despite the pressure of high inflation, a 2023 study by GreenPrint found that 66% of total consumers and 80% of young adults are willing to pay more for sustainable products (1).  As a result, many brands present sustainability claims that are misleading, unproven, or downright false.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore what greenwashing is, why companies do it, how to spot it, and what impact it has on our planet and society.  The knowledge you’ll gain won’t only make you a savvier consumer but also empower you to drive change with your choices.

What is Greenwashing?

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What is greenwashing?” or “What does greenwashing mean?”, you’re not alone. As consumers, we’re constantly bombarded with labels like “green”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable”, and “all-natural”, making it increasingly challenging to separate fact from fiction.

At its most basic level, the definition of greenwashing is straightforward: it’s a deceptive marketing strategy where a company gives a false impression of its environmental responsibility. In other words, it’s when a company talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.

Let’s break down greenwashing a bit further into its most common types:

  1. Vagueness: This occurs when claims about a product or service are so poorly defined or broad that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. For instance, labels like “all-natural” can be misleading since they lack a clear definition. Arsenic is natural too, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you!
  2. Irrelevance: This refers to claims that may be truthful but are unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally-friendly products. An example is products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs have been banned for years.
  3. Lesser of Two Evils: This type of greenwashing involves claims that may be true within the product category but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. For example, organic cigarettes might be “better” than regular cigarettes, but they’re still harmful to your health.
  4. False Labels: This form of greenwashing occurs when marketers use false labels to give the illusion of a third-party environmental endorsement or certification.

To truly understand greenwashing, it’s useful to look at real-world examples.

One notorious case involved Volkswagen, which claimed their cars were “clean diesel” and environmentally friendly. However, it was discovered that the company had installed devices to cheat emissions tests, leading to a scandal now referred to as “Dieselgate” (2).

Another example is H&M’s “Conscious” clothing line, which has faced criticism for obscuring the fact that a majority of the company’s practices are not sustainable, while drawing attention to a small subset of products that are slightly “greener” (3).

Greenwashing is undoubtedly a complex issue, but gaining clarity on its definition, types, and real-world manifestations is a crucial first step in combating it. By understanding what greenwashing is, we can make informed decisions that align with our values and support a genuinely sustainable future.

The History of Greenwashing

The art of greenwashing isn’t as modern as you might think. Its roots go back several decades, and understanding its history can shed light on why it’s such a pervasive issue today.

Greenwashing emerged in the 1960s and 70s, alongside the environmental movement. As consumers started to prioritize environmental responsibility, companies realized the potential marketing power of appearing “green”. This gave birth to greenwashing: a tactic designed to tap into consumers’ growing eco-consciousness without making any significant changes to business practices.

One early example comes from the American electrical company Westinghouse. In the 1970s, the company faced criticism for its involvement in nuclear power. Westinghouse countered by running advertisements promoting their efforts towards air pollution reduction. These ads boasted about their commitment to a cleaner environment, distracting consumers from the company’s nuclear power controversies and creating an illusion of an eco-friendly brand (4).

Similarly, in the 1980s, oil company Chevron launched the “People Do” campaign, featuring their employees protecting wildlife and the environment. The campaign’s warm and fuzzy feel concealed the fact that Chevron was, and still is, a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (5) .

In the 1990s, with the rise of the internet and easier access to information, greenwashing became more sophisticated. Companies started to exploit the lack of universal definitions for terms like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable”. They began creating their own “eco-labels” to imply third-party certification, when in reality, these labels held no verifiable meaning.

Over the years, greenwashing has morphed from blatant lies to subtle manipulations. Today, it often involves cherry-picking positive environmental aspects while ignoring larger negative impacts, misleading consumers with vague language, or boasting about eco-efforts that are legally required.

This evolution reflects how businesses have adapted their greenwashing strategies to align with our growing awareness and interest in sustainability. As consumers, this history lesson serves as a stark reminder to keep our eyes wide open. Armed with this knowledge, we’re better equipped to see through the façades and make truly sustainable choices.

Why do Companies Greenwash?

Now that we’ve peeled back the layers of greenwashing’s history, let’s dive into the why. What are the motivations that drive companies to greenwash? What benefits do they derive from this manipulative practice?

  1. Financial Gain. In our environmentally conscious era, “green” sells. A 2020 study by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business found that products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not (6). Companies, ever attuned to consumer trends, have spotted this shift and are leveraging it to enhance their appeal and, ultimately, their bottom line. If appearing green boosts sales and attracts customers, some companies will opt for the facade rather than investing in genuine sustainability.
  2. Reputation management. Companies embroiled in environmental controversies often use greenwashing to deflect criticism and repair their public image. By promoting their green initiatives, they can divert attention from their less environmentally-friendly practices and paint a picture of corporate responsibility and care for the planet.
  3. Competitive edge. In crowded markets, businesses are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves. By presenting themselves as environmentally-friendly, companies can position themselves above competitors who don’t display the same level of “green” commitment.
  4. Influence policy and deter regulation. By publicly presenting themselves as sustainable, companies can argue that additional environmental regulation is unnecessary, all the while continuing practices that are harmful to the environment.

The benefits that companies gain from greenwashing, from increased sales and improved reputation to competitive advantage and policy influence, reveal a harsh truth: as long as being “green” is good for business, some companies will resort to greenwashing. However, as consumers become more savvy and information more accessible, the risks of being caught greenwashing are growing. It’s up to us, the consumers, to continue to pressure companies to walk their talk genuinely.

How to Identify Greenwashing?

You might be wondering, “How can I avoid greenwashing?” or “How can I spot greenwashing when I see it?” Let’s dig into common tactics, key indicators, and practical tips to avoid falling into the greenwashing trap.

Greenwashing can come in many shapes and sizes. Common tactics include:

  • Vague Language: Companies often use undefined or unregulated terms like “green”, “eco-friendly”, “natural”, or “clean”. Without specific definitions or standards, these words can be deceptive.
  • Irrelevant Claims: Some businesses brag about not using a harmful substance that has already been banned or is irrelevant to their product or service.
  • Hidden Trade-Offs: This is when a product is marketed as green based on a single attribute, while other environmentally damaging factors are ignored.
  • Lesser of Two Evils: Companies claim their product is greener than others in a category that’s inherently unsustainable. For example, an “eco-friendly” SUV is still less sustainable than a compact, fuel-efficient car.
  • False Labels: Companies create their own “green” certifications that aren’t backed by a reputable third-party.

So, what are the red flags to watch out for?

  • Lack of Transparency: If a company’s sustainability claims are not backed by clear, accessible information, be wary.
  • Overemphasis on Green Marketing: If a company spends more on advertising their environmental friendliness than on implementing sustainable practices, it might be greenwashing.
  • Ignoring the Big Picture: If a company focuses solely on one green initiative while neglecting other areas of environmental impact, it might be a sign of greenwashing.
  • Too Good to Be True: If a company’s green claims seem too perfect or don’t align with industry norms, they probably are.

To avoid greenwashing, here are some practical tips:

  1. Do Your Research: Look beyond the marketing and find out what a company is really doing for the environment. Verify their claims using independent, third-party sources. 
  2. Check Certifications: Look for reputable, third-party certifications like FSC for wood products, MSC for seafood, or Energy Star for appliances.
  3. Ask Questions: If a company’s claims are vague or unclear, reach out and ask for clarification. A genuinely green company will welcome your interest.
  4. Support Transparency: Choose to support companies that are transparent about their environmental impact, even if they’re not perfect. Progress over perfection.

Remember, our collective power as consumers is enormous. The more we choose genuine sustainability over greenwashed products, the more we push the market towards real, positive change.  Keep reading to discover where greenwashing lurks.

Greenwashing in Different Industries

Greenwashing isn’t limited to any one industry.  From beauty to food to fashion, companies use greenwashing to paint a picture of sustainability that isn’t quite accurate. Let’s unpack some examples.

Beauty Industry

In the beauty world, greenwashing manifests through those all-too-familiar buzzwords: “natural”, “organic”, or “clean”. But without a universal definition for these terms in the industry, brands often use them loosely. A product labeled as “natural” might still contain harmful or synthetic ingredients.

One example is Herbal Essences, which touts its bio:renew line of shampoos as “real botanicals” and Kew certified.  However, a look at the ingredients reveals a host of synthetic chemicals, alongside some plant-derived ingredients (7). The term “real botanicals” may lead consumers to believe the product is entirely natural, which is not the case.  Similarly, Aveeno, which promotes its products as “Active Naturals”, have been found to contain synthetic ingredients and potential allergens.

Always check for genuine certifications and read ingredient lists.

Food Industry

The food industry’s greenwashing can be both subtle and blatant. Terms like “free-range”, “humane”, or “sustainable” are regularly exploited for marketing.

An example of this was the lawsuit against Tyson Foods in 2017.  Despite multiple lawsuits over their “all-natural” chicken, which is raised with antibiotics, the company continues to use the label (8).  This deceptive labeling can mislead consumers into thinking they’re buying a healthier, more eco-friendly product.

In another case, Happy Egg Co, one of the largest “free-range” egg producers in the U.K., described depict “happy hens” roaming large green fields.  PETA investigations instead revealed shocking images of crowded, inhumane conditions with limited outdoor access, animal mutilation, and disease (9).

Fashion Industry

Fast fashion giants are notorious for their greenwashing tactics.  These brands often engage in greenwashing by launching small “eco-conscious” collections while maintaining unsustainable production processes for the rest of their products. Critics argue that these techniques distract from the damaging environmental impact of these brands, which rely heavily on producing large quantities of cheap, quickly discarded clothing.  These sorts of clothing emit 400% more emissions per item than a garment kept for a full year and worn 50 times (10).

For example, ASOS’s “Responsible Edit” has been questioned due to the lack of transparency about what makes these products “responsible”, and how the rest of their range measures up in terms of sustainability.   Similarly, Forever 21 launched a “sustainability collection” using 2% recycled materials and received criticism for masking their overall unsustainable business model

These examples underscore that greenwashing isn’t confined to one industry.  As informed consumers, we must look beyond the surface and question the claims made by these companies.

The Impact of Greenwashing

The fallout from greenwashing extends beyond misleading consumers. Its tendrils reach deep into the environment and society, setting off a domino effect of detrimental consequences.

  • Environmental Harm: When companies greenwash, they’re not just painting a false image of sustainability; they’re also diverting attention from the environmental harm they’re causing. Whether it’s contributing to pollution, depleting resources, or producing greenhouse gases, the damage is real and significant. In essence, greenwashing can give a free pass to environmentally destructive practices, slowing down the urgent progress we need to make towards genuine sustainability.

  • Impact on Consumers: Greenwashing exploits consumers’ good intentions. It misleads people who want to make eco-friendly choices, duping them into supporting practices they would otherwise avoid. It can also create skepticism and cynicism around all environmental claims, causing consumers to dismiss genuine efforts by companies that truly are sustainable.

Despite the negativity surrounding greenwashing, there’s a silver lining: consumers wield significant power. By being vigilant, questioning vague claims, and demanding transparency, consumers can exert pressure on companies to move beyond lip service and make meaningful changes. Purchasing truly eco-friendly products can amplify the reach of sustainable brands, thereby pushing the market towards a greener future.

From the surface, greenwashing may seem like just a marketing gimmick, but its ripple effects are far-reaching and profound. As consumers, our responsibility extends beyond discerning truth from fiction; it involves supporting companies that go the extra mile.  Remember, green is not just a color or a marketing claim. It’s a commitment to preserving our planet.


  1. “Business of Sustainability Index.”  Greenprint, 2023.  https://pditechnologies.com/resources/report/2023-business-sustainability-index/
  2. “Volkswagen: The scandal explained.”  BBC News, 2015.  https://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772
  3. “H&M Is Being Sued for Greenwashing. What Does That Mean For Fashion?”  The Cut, 2022.  https://www.thecut.com/2022/08/h-and-m-greenwashing-fashion.html
  4. “The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing.”  The Guardian, 2016.  https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies
  5. “Chevron Does: Do’s and Don’ts.”  Los Angeles Times, 1988.  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-02-14-ca-42437-story.html
  6. “Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products.”  NYU Stern, 2019.  https://www.stern.nyu.edu/experience-stern/faculty-research/actually-consumers-do-buy-sustainable-products
  7. “Herbal Essences Bio:Renew.  Are They Greenwashing?”  Sustainably Savvy.  https://www.sustainablysavvy.ca/herbal-essences-biorenew-greenwashing/
  8. “USDA says Tyson used antibiotics on chicken.”  NBC News, 2008.  https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna24956860
  9. “Chickens Left to Rot on Happy Egg Co. Supplier Farms.”  PETA.  https://investigations.peta.org/happy-egg-co-free-range-eggs/
  10. “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming.”  Forbes, 2015.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/?sh=c0b85de79e41