What does greenwashing look like?

What is greenwashing, what does it look like, and how your company can avoid it.
Csaba Szabo
4 mins

What does Greenwashing look like? 

The term greenwashing was coined by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. While staying in a hotel, he noticed a sign that asked guests to reuse their towels. This was ironic given that the hotel was expanding rapidly and encroaching on local habitats at the time. This is a classic case of greenwashing: damaging huge chunks of the environment while highlighting the small improvements publicly.

This article is a guide on Greenwashing: what is it, what does it look like, and most importantly, how can your company avoid it.

What Is Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing tactic that companies use to misguide customers into believing that their products, services, and missions are environmentally-friendly. It directs the customer to look at a company’s shiny environmental policies, while diverting their attention away from the parts of their business that are causing the biggest impact.

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.”

Not only is it harmful to the environment but also undermines the companies that are actually utilising sustainable practices. 

It makes it harder for customers to put their trust in eco-friendly products and in the long run, makes customers more sceptical in those genuine, sustainability focused companies who are making an effort.

Diving deeper into Greenwashing: Chevron case study

Chevron is one of the largest companies in the world and the second-largest oil company in the United States. Not only are they famous for their low-cost premium oil but have also continuously fallen foul of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Chevron pledged to have "ever-cleaner energy," but in reality, the company's production facilities had a drastic impact on the environment. In 2003, the company made a settlement of $275 million with the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act. In 2000 they were fined $2.2 million for a pipeline leak. In 1988, Chevron paid $550,000 to settle a state lawsuit related to toxic emissions at their plant. Unfortunately, these aren’t isolated cases. 

Yet, while these environmental violations continued to add up, their advertising (as you can see below) was focused on wildlife and environmental protection.

How to spot Greenwashing 

Let’s look at a few of the common signs:

  • Do your research. Find out what the company's total emissions are. See if they publish a report on their footprint and check if this has been verified by a third party. 
  • Understand their net zero targets. Check if they have set a Net Zero target and track their progress against this. Some companies just measure their Scope 1 & 2 emissions (the fuel and electricity they’ve used) instead of also tracking their wider supply chain. 
  • Look out for vague terms. You should watch out for vague terms such as 'eco-friendly' and 'farm fresh.' Some companies will use these terms to focus on one sustainable component (paper straws) while ignoring the rest (plastic cups). 
  • Watch out for rebranding. Consumers should be cautious of corporations who suddenly change their brand to fit a 'green' image.

What can your company do to avoid Greenwashing?

Going green is becoming a profitable business strategy considering the trends in consumer behaviour. It can help you attract the next generation of talent and improve your team’s retention. At the same time, going green can reduce your operational costs by reducing energy usage and helping businesses to tap into green grants and tax benefits. 

So what can you do to avoid greenwashing on your journey to becoming a more sustainable company? 

  1. Set out your strategy. The first thing is to set your sustainability strategy. Take the time to understand what your business wants to achieve, who should get involved, and what the short term wins are. 
  2. Measure your company's carbon footprint. To avoid greenwashing, it’s crucial to understand the emissions across your entire company. This will help you to understand the parts of your business that you need to focus on. 
  3. Take action. It's important to take the necessary steps to prevent greenwashing rather than just speaking on it. Use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) objectives to ensure your business is kept accountable. Plan out the actions you can take and who is responsible. 
  4. Share your Impact. Having set out your plan and with your initiatives in place, you can now share your impact. Being transparent is key to preventing greenwashing for companies. Highlight what you’ve achieved and the areas for improvement.

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