Greenwashing: What is it?

“Greenwashing” is a term coined in the late 1980s. It refers to the practice of making misleading claims about a product to suggest using it is helpful to the environment. It has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as more and more companies attempt to capitalize on consumers’ growing concerns about the environment. Unfortunately, greenwashing is often difficult to spot, and it can have serious negative impacts on both businesses and the environment. In order to combat greenwashing, it’s important to be an informed consumer and to demand transparency from the companies you support. As a marketer, it’s important to understand when your efforts or communications are crossing a line. In the following article, we’ll offer a concise greenwashing definition, outline a few greenwashing examples, and describe the seven sins of greenwashing.

Greenwashing: What is it?

Greenwashing Definition

So, what is greenwashing exactly? One greenwashing definition is that it’s the practice of making false or misleading claims about a product or service’s environmental benefits. This can take the form of exaggerating a product’s recyclability, downplaying its carbon footprint, or using images of nature to make a product appear natural. Greenwashing is a serious issue because it exploits consumers’ willingness to pay more for “green” products, and it can undermine public trust in legitimate efforts to promote sustainability. Greenwashing can be used to mislead consumers and allow companies and institutions to continue harmful practices without being held accountable. In addition, greenwashing can divert attention and resources away from truly sustainable practices. For these reasons, it’s important to be aware of the signs of greenwashing and to do your own research before supporting any claims about a product’s environmental friendliness.

Greenwashing Examples

Greenwashing is the deceptive practice of making false or unsubstantiated claims about a product or organization’s environmental friendliness. Unfortunately, it’s a common occurrence in today’s marketplace. More and more companies are attempting to capitalize on the growing consumer demand for sustainable products. Here are a few greenwashing examples:

  • A company claiming that its product is “recyclable” when, in reality, it can only be recycled under specific conditions that are difficult or impossible to meet.
  • A company touting the environmental benefits of its product without disclosing the harmful effects of its production or use.
  • A company exaggerating the recyclability or compostability of its packaging.
  • An organization claiming to be “carbon-neutral” when it has only offset a fraction of its emissions.
  • A corporation masquerading as an environmentally responsible business by funding green initiatives but continuing to engage in unsustainable practices.

Greenwashing is misleading and often outright harmful, so it’s important to be aware of the ways in which companies and institutions can use it to their advantage. When in doubt, do your research and ask questions. Only when you make an effort to internalize the answer to the question, “what is greenwashing?”, will you be prepared to ensure that you’re not engaging in the practice yourself while developing marketing strategies or becoming a victim of the strategy as a consumer.

Seven Sins Of Greenwashing

While there are many ways in which companies can greenwash their products, the “seven sins of greenwashing” are particularly common: hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, lesser of two evils, fibbing, and worshiping false labels.

  1. Hidden Trade-Offs

A product may be advertised as eco-friendly, but if it requires a lot of energy and resources to produce, it may not be as sustainable as you think.

  1. No Proof

Make sure any green claims are backed up with evidence. If a company can’t provide third-party certification or some other form of validation for their claims, be suspicious.

  1. Vagueness

Be wary of vague claims like “all-natural” or “eco-friendly.” What does that actually mean? The company might not have anything specific in mind, or they might be trying to avoid making hard and fast claims they can’t back up.

  1. Irrelevance

Some companies will try to distract you from their environmental impact by touting unrelated virtues of their product. For example, a company might boast about how its packaging is recyclable, even though the product itself is not very sustainable.

  1. Lesser of Two Evils

Corporations sometimes try to make themselves look good by comparison to other companies that are doing even worse in terms of environmental impact. For example, a coal-fired power plant might claim to be “cleaner” than other coal-fired power plants because they use a new technology that reduces emissions. However, this new technology may still have significant negative environmental impacts.

  1. Fibbing

Companies often go so far as to tell outright lies about their environmental record. For example, a clothing company might claim that their garments are made from organic cotton when in reality they are not.

  1. Worshiping False Labels

When a company or organization spends more time and resources promoting that they are “green” through logos and labels, instead of actually implementing environmentally friendly practices.


It is evident that the issue of corporate greenwashing is a complex one. On the one hand, companies are under pressure to reduce their environmental impact and show that they are taking steps to do so. On the other hand, there is also a danger of companies using greenwashing as a way to distract from more serious environmental problems. Far too many companies falsely claim to be environmentally friendly in order to attract customers, without actually making any meaningful changes to their operations. This not only dupes people into supporting businesses that are harming the environment, but it also undermines faith in brands that are genuinely committed to sustainability. As such, it is important for consumers to be informed and aware of the potential for greenwashing. It is also important for business strategists and marketers to specifically avoid initiatives or messages that, upon deeper review, involve what amounts to the use of greenwashing tactics.

However, this should not stop companies from taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. Instead, it is important for companies to be transparent about their efforts and make sure that they are truly committed to making a difference.


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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Leadership & Management, management consulting