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What is Greenwashing? | Definition, Examples & More

Polly Polly 05 May 2022 What is Greenwashing? | Definition, Examples & More

While the word 'green' might make you think of your last walk in the forest and the word 'washing' might evoke the feeling of cleanness – when combined, these words create a lot less charming term: greenwashing.

What is greenwashing? Do clothing companies take part in greenwashing and if so, how exactly? And how can you, as a conscious consumer, differentiate between green marketing and greenwashing?

With the following specific examples of greenwashing (in fashion), you might become resistant to brai… we mean, greenwashing. So, read on!

In this article:

Greenwashing – a definition

Greenwashing means that a company spends more time, effort and money on advertising and making its products seem more environmentally friendly than actually minimizing their negative environmental impact.1

To put it more simply, greenwashing is defined as a marketing strategy that can mislead conscious consumers into thinking that the product they are buying is actually from an environmentally friendly company.

How and when did the term greenwashing enter our vocabulary?

The term greenwashing was coined by an environmental activist from New York, Jay Westerveld.2 When staying in a hotel, he noticed the following message: “Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, “I will use again.” A towel on the floor means, “Please replace.” Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth's vital resources.”

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A note with the Save Our Planet message

Jay Westerveld wasn't convinced by this claim – not even by the green recycling symbol decorating the note.

So, hotels waste a huge amount of resources elsewhere – whether it is the heating, cooling, use of single-use plastic or food waste. But they decided to save the planet by washing the towels less frequently? And was it just a coincidence that this way, hotels don't really save the planet as much as they save their money?

This thought process eventually led him to write a critical essay where the term greenwashing appeared for the first time. However, greenwashing as a marketing strategy was used way before the term even existed.

Fun fact: Similarly to our editor Kim, Jay Westerveld also grew to dislike and not being able to stand the word 'green'.

Tips for spotting greenwashing advertising

Greenwashing is intended to go unnoticed, so it is not that easy to spot it. Inspired by the saying 'know your enemy', we will look at the typical patterns in greenwashing practices (with examples!) as well as real-life greenwashing marketing examples from the (fast) fashion industry. This will make recognizing greenwashing so much easier.

A 2007 study identified several patterns in greenwashing strategies, now also known as the Seven Sins of Greenwashing.3 Let's dive into the si(g)ns that should raise the green flag.

#1 Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off

Claiming that a product is sustainable, 'green' or 'eco-friendly' based on only one environmental attribute or an extremely narrow set of such attributes. This is problematic because sustainability is a complex concept and these claims fail to acknowledge other environmental issues.

Greenwashing example:

A claim such as 'Organic meat, better for the planet!' ignores the fact that animal agriculture in any form causes enormous harm to the environment. Or a coffeehouse claiming to be sustainable because it doesn't use plastic straws while continuing to use all the other single-use plastic materials.

#2 Sin of No Proof

Claiming that a product is 'eco-friendly', while this claim cannot be supported by any third-party certification or information that would be accessible to the consumer.

Greenwashing example:

'This shampoo was not tested on animals' without any reliable certification supporting this claim. Just because the label says so, it doesn't mean it is actually a cruelty-free and vegan care product.

#3 Sin of Vagueness

Any claim that is so poorly described and broad enough to leave the room for (mis)interpretation.

Greenwashing example:

'Eco-friendly product' claim just poses this question – in what way exactly, what does it really mean? Or the all-time favourite claim 'All Natural', triggering humans' appeal to believe that everything natural is good. Spoiler alert: it is not. For instance, arsenic is natural but you wouldn't want to mix it in your morning smoothie.??

#4 Sin of Irrelevance

Making an environmental claim that is not important nor helpful for consumers who want to buy a product that is more sustainable. In short, the claim might be true, but it is irrelevant to the product.

Greenwashing example:

Labelling a typically vegan food product such as a bag of potatoes as vegan. Or, a product with the label 'sustainable' because it doesn't use material X, while the law already forbids its use anyways.

#5 Sin of Fibbing

Making a sustainability claim that is simply false.

Greenwashing example:

'This sweater is made of 100% certified organic cotton', while it is made of regular cotton.

#6 Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

Claiming that a product is more environmentally friendly than others in the same product group while ignoring the fact that the whole product group is simply unsustainable. This distracts the consumer from seeing the bigger picture.

Greenwashing example:

An airline company claiming to emit fewer emissions than its competitor. This doesn't change the fact that the airline industry is simply not environmentally friendly.

#7 Sin of Worshipping False Labels

Designing fake certifications or labels for products to mislead consumers.4 This makes it more difficult for consumers to choose the product that is actually certified with reliable certification programs.

Greenwashing example:

When a company designs a certification that resembles the Leaping Bunny certification to mislead the consumer that the product was not tested on animals.

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7 sins of Greenwashing

Update 22-10-2021: These tips for spotting common si(g)ns of greenwashing are not only meant for us – the consumers. For instance, the UK Competitions & Markets Authority (CMA) recently issued the Green Claims Code for shoppers but also for businesses.

This Code is not new legislation, but it contains rules of thumb for businesses on how to comply with the consumer protection law and simultaneously how to avoid greenwashing in their environmental claims.7

From January 2022, the CMA will be reviewing misleading sustainability claims.8 If a business is in breach of consumer law, it can result in a civil action or criminal prosecution.

The UK is not the only one witnessing changes in how greenwashing is tackled. The Dutch Competition Authority (ACM) also published guidelines for sustainability claims earlier this year.

This is, of course, great news and we can't wait to see more guidelines and legislation against greenwashing being implemented in the future!

Greenwashing vs. Green Marketing

Differentiating between greenwashing and green marketing can be difficult at first. But don't worry. After reading through the 7 sins of greenwashing, keeping an eye out for the most common (and obvious) examples won't be an issue. Soon, you'll be a pro at differentiating between all the greenwash and green marketing!

Green marketing – as opposed to greenwashing – is about promoting and selling products that are actually less harmful to the environment by making legitimate claims supported by trustworthy sources or reliable certifications.

There might be a thin line between greenwashing and green marketing, but usually, the latter can be recognized by honesty and transparency.

Sometimes, it is not as obvious as: “We are the most sustainable fashion brand in the world” with no sources whatsoever vs. “We know we are not a perfect brand, but we are constantly trying to improve our practices to become more sustainable. Read our report on what we do and what we are planning to improve in the future.”

To differentiate greenwashing from green marketing, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a third-party certification or a reliable source (not the brand's website) that would support the environmental claim that is being made?
  • Is the claim exaggerated or does it seem too good to be true?
  • Is the claim specific enough for me to understand what it actually means?
  • What is the bigger picture? Does it make sense that the company focuses on this specific sustainability practice? Is it really relevant to the product?
  • Is only a tiny part of the brand's huge product range labelled as 'sustainable' or 'conscious'?
  • Does the brand promote overconsumption? Are you made to believe that buying a lot of their 'sustainable' products will save the planet? Spoiler alert: Nope, overconsumption is and will never be the solution.

Greenwashing in (fast) fashion

As the awareness about the climate crisis is growing, so does the number of conscious consumers who prefer to buy more sustainable products.5 However, for many fast fashion brands, it is easier to greenwash than to radically change their sourcing practices and production process. So, let's look at some greenwashing in action!

  • Introducing a conscious collection

When large and well-known fast fashion brands release a conscious collection, while they never specify what 'conscious' actually means… don't walk, run! Especially when they claim to use 'sustainable materials' and not explaining what they consider to be a sustainable material.

Or, are those brands celebrating that their conscious collection is made from, for instance, organic cotton? Even though organic cotton is definitely better than regular cotton, many huge fast fashion brands can (and should) do more.

  • Launching a recycling initiative

What we've witnessed time and time again is large fast fashion brands launching a recycling initiative. Is there anything wrong with allowing their customers to drop off unwanted clothes in their stores?

Sadly, when the clothes can't be reused or are unfit for recycling, their end destination is a landfill.6 Also, the customers usually receive gift cards in return, inviting them to buy more clothes and therefore, produce even more waste. Hello, hello, hello, how low...Smells like greenwashing spirit.

  • Releasing a capsule wardrobe collection

The goal of building your own capsule wardrobe is to reduce the number of items you own and break free from impulsive buying behaviour. You learn how to combine the items you already have and love.

It also takes time to build your own capsule wardrobe. You mindfully decide what you actually need and where to buy it sustainably. With a capsule wardrobe, you can escape from all the noise that tells you that you need to buy a new item every weekend.

So, when you take into account the wonderful purpose of having a capsule wardrobe and then see fast fashion brands promoting their capsule wardrobe collections, you know it's greenwashing at its finest.

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Green washing or green marketing?

(How) can we stop greenwashing?

You might be thinking – alright, I understand what greenwashing is and I know how to spot it. But what can we do about greenwashing?

As a consumer, you can call out brands that engage in greenwashing on social media, spread the word and raise awareness in your environment. You can also support vegan, ethical and sustainable brands that not only claim to be sustainable but also have the evidence to prove it.

Staying critical is essential. But at the same time, it is important to know that not all companies are here to mislead us. Some small businesses might not have enough financial resources to apply for reliable certifications.

Other small brands might have good intentions, but they are still on their journey to learn more. Aren't we all? There is a learning curve with topics like sustainability and greenwashing. The brand might start somewhere and work hard to overcome certain sustainability barriers. It ain't easy to do it all at once.

So, it might be better to look for measurable growth and progress in the brand's sustainability practices. This can be done by checking whether the brands kept their sustainability promise they've made in the past or whether they are willing to set a challenging goal for themselves today.

Hopefully soon, the issue of greenwashing will be tackled by appropriate legislation. Implementing laws against greenwashing could make protecting our Mama Earth so much easier. And can you just imagine how much easier it will be for us to not act like Sherlock Holmes every time we need to buy something new????‍??