Efforts to decrease the environmental impact of our consumer culture are being prevented by confusion over terminology and outrageous greenwashing. In a world where ‘sustainability’ is all the rage, you might be drawn to the chocolate bar with a small green leaf on it, making promises of ‘sustainably sourced cocoa’ and ‘ethical farming’. By picking this bar over another brand which lacks these labels, you might be falling to the traps of greenwashing. So how do we know who to trust?

What is greenwashing?

You’ve probably heard of whitewashing, which is the practice of covering up scandalous stories by presenting a biased view of the facts. The less well-known term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 and describes the corporate practice of making misleading or deceptive claims about the sustainability of products, goals or policies. This ranges from simply changing the name/packaging of a product to ridiculously expensive marketing campaigns. Many greenwashing practices are almost impossible to spot and only come to light when the company’s spending differences are analysed more closely. In many cases, more money/time is spent on advertising the idea of being environmentally conscious than actually spent on ethical and sustainable practices.

Origins and examples of greenwashing

In the mid-1980s, consumers received the majority of their information about products from television, radio and print media. Without the current luxury of the Internet to check facts within seconds, companies were able to mislead people to believe in their alleged sustainable practices. The most notable example is ‘The People Do’ campaign ran by Chevron, a big oil company. In the 1980s, The company made commercials centred around how ‘environmentally friendly’ their business was, while simultaneously violating the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air act and also causing damaging wildlife with massive oil spills.

Another classic greenwashing case is that of Volkswagen. By fitting their vehicles with a device which could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test, the company was able to cheat these results by temporarily altering the car’s performance. At the same time, the company filled their marketing campaigns with claims of low-emission engines, which in reality produced 40 times more pollutants than consumers were led to believe.

Greenwashing has changed dramatically over the last few decades and the usage of the term didn’t take off until recently, which coincided with the increase in demand for greener practices. As a result of the growing awareness of greenwashing, the sale of any plastics labelled and marketed as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ are banned in California. It was recognised that these claims were often highly misleading or simply wrong, especially with regards to how quickly the product will biodegrade. Consumers would buy these plastics thinking that they were the better option, environmentally-speaking, when in fact there was no difference. In early 2017, Walmart paid a penalty of almost $1 million to settle allegations accusing the corporation of violating this exact law.

Why should you care about greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the enemy of sustainability and is hiding a much larger problem. On the surface, it is a marketing ploy designed to trick consumers into buying a given product. This may lead to consumer scepticism of all green claims, which diminishes the power of sustainable and ethical companies. At its core, greenwashing incentivises something that many be harming the environment.

Brainwashing or greenwashing? How to avoid the common pitfalls

As sustainability and green practices continue to grow in popularity, so does the use of terms such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘compostable’, ‘ethical’ and ‘biodegradable’. The problem with those terms is that many are not well understood by the public, and it allows brands to be ambiguous about their environmental commitments, hence allowing for easy greenwashing.

Here are some tips for how to avoid being greenwashed:

  • Do you see an amazing ‘green’ claim that seems too good to be true? Double check it on their website to see if they are overstating their intentions.

  • Do you see suggestive pictures? Images such as beautiful nature scenes and use of the colour green will lead you to believe that the product is nature, even if this is not the case.

  • How transparent is the company? When you check their website, you’re should see a lot of information, instead of the usual vague and unspecific descriptions that are common in greenwashing.

  • Does the ad use misleading buzz words that doesn’t have any real meaning? Throwing in words like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ without any certifications, third party endorsement or real facts suggest that these claims are unlikely to be true.

  • What is your instinct? We all know that advertising and marketing should never be taken at face value and we are very good at recognising when there is something off about it.


Despite the abundance of greenwashing practices, there is hope. Companies are practicing greenwashing due to the pressure the public is putting on them, which is already a step in the right direction. By reading the labels, doing a bit of research and spreading awareness, it’s definitely possible to avoid most greenwashing and make progress in eliminating it for good.