How We All Fall Prey to Greenwashing: Brainwashing the Public into Believing a Company’s Green Claims

It ain’t easy being green. And yet, green or greener consumption is something most Americans crave. Studies show the majority of U.S. consumers consider sustainability when making some of their purchasing decisions. But what happens when a company markets itself as eco-friendly and they are not what they claim?

This article will discuss greenwashing, a common tactic that some companies use to appear greener than they are, and how to spot them when shopping.

What is greenwashing, and why is it a problem?

Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, “Greenwashing” is when a company claims to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but doesn’t make any notable sustainability efforts.

This can be a problem from an environmental health perspective because consumers may purchase items under the pretense that they benefit the planet, which may not be accurate. Many businesses have realized they can charge a premium for “greenwashed” items, and often consumers do not know how to verify these green claims

According to GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Susbaility Index, 77% of Americans are concerned about the environmental impact of products they buy. But there is a large degree of mistrust about companies’ environmental claims. 53% of Americans never or only sometimes believe a company’s environmental claims.

What are the three types of greenwashing?

The three main types of greenwashing are:

  • The use of environmental imagery
    • Rolling green hills, clean beaches, and other aesthetically pleasing pictures can lead consumers to believe that the products they purchase are good for the planet and sustainable.
  • Misleading labels and language
    • Brands make big claims of sustainability with little to no data to back it up, or with partially valid claims to mislead consumers.
  • Hidden trade-off
    • The company emphasizes one sustainable aspect of the product but has other environmentally damaging components that it downplays or does not address.

Educating yourself as a consumer on how companies utilize marketing claims to greenwash their products can be easier to identify.

Is H&M greenwashing?

Possibly. But the jury is still out (literally).

H&M is currently under a pending lawsuit filed on July 22, 2022, which alleges H&M has misled consumers about the sustainability of hundreds of products by publishing “environmental scorecards” containing false information.

The fashion brand has also come under fire for its recycling program. Environmental groups want to know exactly how much clothing is being recycled, what is being passed on to developing countries (which puts the responsibility on them), and what ends up in the landfill (more on that later).

H&M is not the first, or likely last, fashion brand to be accused of greenwashing. According to an article by the Cut, “Big brands have accomplished very little. The fashion industry has not meaningfully reduced its carbon footprint”. Many consumers are demanding corporate social responsibility, especially for huge companies like H&M.

What are some examples of greenwashing?

Companies regularly utilize green advertising to make their products appear environmentally friendly.

An image of how oil refineries are depicted in their marketing.

This can be done by:

  • Using environmental images. This is a prevalent tactic where a company will use beautiful imagery on their labels, products, and marketing to imply environmental friendliness. This gives the perception that they are a green company without stating any outright lies.
  • Misleading environmental claims and labels are prevalent with brands that use terms like “made with natural ingredients” or “100% organic” without data backing up their claims. These claims can be self-created and self-declared, which the consumers may not know or verify before purchasing.
  • Hidden trade-offs can happen when part of the product itself or the supply chain is sustainable, but another factor may be harmful. An example would be buying a shirt made of organic cotton, but the factory has unsafe work conditions and uses child labor.
  • Overemphasizing recyclable packaging. Because cardboard boxes should be recyclable, right? And there are plenty of affordable, eco-friendly ways to ship garments and goods. It’s worth noting, but it shouldn’t be a main storyline as often as it is. Commonly, companies will also talk also about their office efforts to reduce waste and recycle in the same section. (How many offices don’t do this?)
  • Irrelevant claims can happen when a brand claims its product is free of something that would never be in that product or is already prohibited by law.
  • The lesser of two evils is when the company’s claim is true within the product category, but a more significant risk or environmental impact is involved. An example of this could be a company selling organic vape pens.

Oil companies with commercials showing beautiful landscapes and marine life

A marketing technique as old as time is when fossil fuel companies use beautiful landscapes and marine life in their ad campaigns and marketing, even though they directly impact global warming on a large scale.

Imagery of baby sea animals sells an eco-friendly message.

The coined term called “nature rinsing” is when polluting companies use images of charismatic animals, green planets, and wild landscapes to suggest they are more eco-friendly than they actually are.

Marketing research has shown that “nature rinsing” gives consumers an emotional response and prompts them to view the brand positively.

Bottled water companies showing pristine lakes and mountain springs

Single-use plastic water bottle companies often feature images of pristine wilderness in their marketing. Natural landscape imagery is a common form of greenwashing.

Nature rinsing is evident in bottled water companies by showing clean and pristine natural landscapes. This is to imply that the water comes from fresh mountain springs.

However, many bottled water companies use the same sources as tap water. Sometimes the water you buy in a bottle is simply public tap water that has been enhanced in some way, such as changing the mineral content.

Nestle Waters utilizes Federal Parks to bottle their water, which many people feel is unethical due to the amount of profit the company is making and the little amount the parks are being paid.

Reusing recycled plastic bottles

Reusing recycled plastic bottles seems like a great idea, but it rarely happens how the consumer thinks it will and is a costly process. Less than 30% of plastic bottles are recycled in the United States, but most are “downcycled” when the item is remade into an item of lower quality.

Many people think that if they recycle an item, it can be reused indefinitely, but the polymers break down over time and, at some point, the product is so degraded it cannot be reused. This still creates a landfill problem, despite the best intentions of recycling.

“Made with organic cotton” vs. “Organic cotton”

Brands are usually very intentional with their wording, and sometimes this can be misleading. As consumers, we see the words organic, made with organic materials, all-natural, certified organic, and more, but what does it exactly mean?

When a company claims its items are made with organic cotton, it is hard to know what percentage of organic cotton is used. A clothing item can be made with any percentage of organic cotton; technically, their claim is not false when they say “made with organic cotton.” But the consumer may feel duped to find out it only contains a tiny percentage of organic cotton and the rest of made with conventional cotton. A responsible company will ensure they are being transparent in their labeling.

When looking at organic clothing labels, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading certification for organic textiles. For a brand to qualify for GOTS certification, its products must contain at least 70% organic fibers.

Textile recycling programs

Many brands like Levi’s, Madewell, and H&M have recycling programs that will recycle your garments into new textiles or other recycling initiatives, but how does this work? Or is this another form of greenwashing?

H&M tells consumers, “Let’s close the loop”. They encourage you to dispose of your old clothes at H&M stores in exchange for an H&M coupon to buy new clothes.

The answer isn’t clear. Although H&M seems to be doing great work concerning recycling, it’s unclear if this is true or just their excellent marketing. They are investing millions of dollars into sustainability, but they are still a fast fashion brand at the foundation, promoting consumerism, quick fashion cycles, and cheap garments.

For some, the H&M recycling program is nothing more than a giant marketing tactic and a way to get you not to feel guilty for disposing of your clothes (aka, dump them off at their store). In return, they give you a 15% off coupon to use in the store (further perpetuating the cycle).

Levi Strauss and Madewell utilize Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green Program, which turns old denim into insulation for homes. The program has donated more than $188,700 worth of insulation to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles.

However, some critics say that this is still a form of greenwashing. The program does not sort between irreparable and still wearable denim; they are shredding denim that could be donated to needy people and other programs.

Why do companies greenwash?

Companies use greenwashing to entice consumers to purchase items claiming to be green at a premium price while still supporting consumerism. Indulgent spending is not only a problem in America but in many other countries.

Regarding the fashion industry, brands have perpetuated overspending for people to keep “up” with the latest fashion trends. There are also mico-seasons throughout the year, which creates more trends and more demand for them.

Keep in mind sustainable brands do this too but to a lesser extent. My inbox is full of “buy more” messages from dozens of sustainable brands. Many of them email me multiple times a week, and some message me nearly every day.

And really, geenwashing can essentially be considered fancy green marketing to encourage spending. It’s an invitation to be (morally) green, too.

How do you identify greenwashing?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a great article on understanding standard terms businesses use in marketing their environmentally and green products. This can be an excellent resource for consumers when something claims to be “free of” or “made with recycled materials” by telling you what this legally can mean.

The FTC has clear guidance for businesses on ensuring consumer perception is accurate and that they do not knowingly or unknowingly make false claims.

  • To prevent deceptive claims, qualifications and disclosures should be clear, prominent, and understandable.
  • Unless it is clear from the context, environmental marketing claims should specify whether it refers to the product’s packaging, a service, or just to a portion of the product, package, or service.
  • An environmental marketing claim should not overstate, directly or by implication, an environmental attribute or benefit.

What is the opposite of greenwashing?

The opposite of greenwashing is “greenblushing,” which means companies remain silent about the positive impact they are creating and the methods they employ to get the job done.

Final Thoughts

Greenwashing and green marketing have significantly impacted many industries over the past several decades. By understanding misleading environmental claims, consumers can be better prepared to spot the marketing tactics.

No brand is 100% perfect. And many brands have drunk the green Kool-Aid and fully buy into their own claims of greenness. But you can be a more informed consumer and buy products that align with your values. I’m not stating non-green brands are bad (I indulge in many). You cannot shame someone into sustainability. And if you are purposefully supporting a brand for its “green” claims you probably want those claims to be true.

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