What is greenwashing?
In 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term "greenwashing" when writing about a trip to Fiji three years earlier. There, he had visited a resort where he saw a note asking customers to reuse their towels. The resort claimed this would protect the ocean and reefs that were the front cover of their marketing. As Westerveld told The Guardian, “They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’.” It was a thoughtful idea. But Westerveld also knew the resort was growing rapidly, building new bungalows with little thought of the consequences. That was the irony. Whilst the resort professed to care about the environment, their actions said otherwise. They also enjoyed lower laundry costs.
This is greenwashing: making environmental claims that are false, misleading or exaggerated. In other words, it's when companies say they're doing more than they actually are. Unfortunately, most greenwashing is intentional; a sly way for companies to appeal to, and exploit, climate conscious consumers and reap the rewards. That said, sometimes companies simply aren't aware of what's true and what's not — sustainability is complex. Whichever it is though, the result is the same. Consumers believe that a company, product or service is more environmentally friendly than it really is.
About a year before Westerveld coined greenwashing, the oil giant Chevron launched a series of adverts titled 'People Do'. They didn't know it at the time, but the ads became the gold standard of greenwashing. In them, Chevron boldly claimed that their operations didn't harm the environment — but helped it thrive. Whilst, in the background, Chevron violated both the clean air act and the clean water act, and spilt oil into wildlife shelters.
Today, greenwashing isn't as blatant, which makes it even trickier for consumers. Some companies will use a single feature to claim a product is eco-friendly. They might, for example, say that their product is made from paper so it's eco-friendly. Paper may be a sustainable material, but does that really mean the entire product is eco-friendly? What about emissions from manufacturing? Or transport? What's the packaging made from? It might not be a false statement, but it is misleading. Other greenwashing tactics include making claims without proof, making vague claims and making true, but irrelevant, claims.
Learn more: How companies greenwash
Greenwashing matters because it has real consequences. If consumers realise they've been misled, they're likely to doubt environmental claims made by others. This can lead to fewer consumers buying genuine, eco-friendly products, and slowing progress on climate action. If consumers don't realise they've been misled, they may continue to buy products that are, in reality, doing harm. Not only is this directly harmful, but it also diverts capital away from those companies striving to do good.
Greenwashing sows mistrust, slows positive change and misleads consumers who care. In our next article on greenwashing, we'll explore what it means for your business, and how to avoid it.