What is greenwashing & how can you avoid it?

Greenwashing is a term that no business wanted to be branded with – especially not if it’s unintentional. 

With consumers becoming more sustainability-savvy and genuinely interested in the green credentials of their favourite brands, adopting clear, honest and effective climate action measures is more important than ever. 

In this guide to greenwashing for businesses, we’re delving into the history of greenwashing – explaining what it means, how it occurs and how to avoid the branding. 

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term for a business spending more time and money on marketing its green credentials than it spends ensuring its company is green. 

The phrase was coined back in the mid-80s, when Jay Westerveld came across a hotel notice asking guests to reuse their towels to save the environment. Perplexed by the irony of a resource-intensive hotel classifying dirty towels as environmentally friendly, rather than cost-cutting, Westerveld introduced the term greenwashing. 

In essence, greenwashing makes people believe your company is doing more to protect the environment than it actually is. 

Green marketing vs greenwashing

In contrast to greenwashing, green marketing is when a business sells and markets their brand, products or services based on their legitimately positive environmental benefits. 

It’s not wrong, bad or necessarily greenwashing to market yourself as environmentally friendly. In fact, shouting about your green credentials helps consumers make sustainable choices and helps your industry become greener. However, it’s important that in doing so, you’re not misleading anyone. 

The different types of greenwashing

Greenwashing doesn’t have to be intentional. In fact, many businesses mistakenly greenwash their products or services without realising it. 

To help businesses avoid this, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing came up with the following six sins of greenwashing:

1. The hidden trade-off

Suggesting a product is green based on a single or narrow set of attributes. 

For example – advertising a product as recyclable when only the lid is recyclable. 

2. No proof

Making an environmental claim with no proof or certification. 

For example – planting a tree for every customer but not sending them any evidence of doing so. 

3. Vagueness

Making poorly defined or broad claims that are easily misunderstood by consumers. 

For example: calling your business “green” but not explaining what makes your business green. 

4. Irrelevance

Making irrelevant environmental claims that, although true, don’t really matter. 

For example: advertising a product as CFC-free when CFCs have been banned for many years. 

5. Lesser of two evils

Making green claims that distract people from the wider environmental impact of the product. 

For example: advertising organic cigarettes. 

6. Fibbing

Make false claims about the green credentials of a product or service. 

For example, saying a product is plastic-free when it isn’t. 

The consequences of greenwashing

Often, greenwashing results from a lack of research and an abundance of enthusiasm. 

It’s hard not to want to help the environment and assist consumers in living a more sustainable lifestyle – especially when 66% of people (and 73% of millennials) will spend more on a product coming from a sustainable brand. 

But the consequences of making your business appear greener than it actually is can be quite significant. 

1. Misleading customers

First, greenwashing misleads customers, and this could cause them to buy products or spend more money than they would when faced with the truth. This isn’t just morally wrong, but can also lose you customers. 

2. Taking an unfair market share

Greenwashing your products and services takes away business from companies offering more legitimate benefits, and ultimately, this takes away from the planet and the action against climate change. 

3. Creating green cynicism 

The more companies greenwash, the less trust consumers have, which reduces the enthusiasm for living a more sustainable lifestyle, and fighting climate change. 

4. Adverse publicity

You don’t need us to tell you that greenwashing leads to terrible publicity, which can cost millions to rectify – if you can do so at all. 

While there are undoubtedly short-term benefits of greenwashing, the long-term consequences just aren’t worth the risk. And ultimately, you’re only cheating our planet’s future. 

How to avoid the label of greenwashing

Avoiding the label of greenwashing can feel like tricky business, especially if you don’t have a Chief Climate Officer there to guide you through. 

However, there are five simple steps to help you substantiate your green claims and ensure you’re not misleading or greenwashing anyone. 

1. Do your research

It’s easy to see a green business service and assume it solves all of your problems. However, a little research is necessary. 

If you’re conducting a greener business practice (such as tree planting) ensure that you or someone on your behalf is vetting your tree planters. If you’re claiming carbon neutrality, ensure you (or someone on your behalf) have properly calculated your carbon emissions. 

2. Reduce before offsetting

If you’re offsetting your carbon dioxide emissions, ensure that you’ve first reduced them as much as possible. 

Use a carbon footprint calculator or agency to calculate your emissions and identify any you can reduce before you offset the rest. 

3. Be honest

Don’t exaggerate claims or the greenness of your business. Everyone has to start somewhere and consumers will pay more respect to a business saying “hey we’re doing this, but we recognise we need to do more in the future, and we’re planning on how we do that,” than a business who lies. 

4. Be transparent

If you’re making green claims, enable consumers to check them. For example, if you’re planting trees for your business with MoreTrees, do it in your customers’ names so they receive a confirmation email about the trees you’ve planted on their behalf. 

5. Communicate

Things get lost in translation. Connect your stakeholders (offsetting provider, marketing team, consumer research team) to ensure that all claims are correct, valid and meaningful. 

6. Acknowledge your flaws and embrace the future

We’ve already kind of mentioned this one, but we think it’s important. Acknowledge your flaws and embrace the future by setting out how you will become greener, carbon-neutral, and a more sustainable business. 

About MoreTrees 

At MoreTrees, we wanted to create a transparent way for businesses to take climate action and help sequester future CO2 emissions by planting trees. 

Every tree you plant for a customer, client or anyone else, is accompanied by a customisable message, telling them about their tree and where they can find out more. 

To see for yourself, sign up or book a demo