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What is greenwashing and how can you avoid it?

Greenwashing is the practice of making a product or service appear to your consumers to be more aligned with the protection of the planet than is actually true.

For some brands, greenwashing occurs through something as simple as cashing in on imagery that looks and feels ‘green’, right through to making misleading or even false claims relating to your product’s eco or sustainability credentials. We’re looking at why it happens, how it happens and how to avoid it.

Consumers are increasingly attuned to what they want and expect from brands and in the modern world this often relates to the company’s ‘green or eco’ credentials — 65% in the UK think about the environmental impact of the items purchased. This tells us that despite rising costs, shoppers are keen to make informed choices that align with their values relating to protecting the planet.

When brands try to capitalise on this without the substance to back it up, this is greenwashing. Sometimes greenwashing is also referred to as the ‘green sheen’ - the practice of making a product more appealing to consumers through varying, unusually deceptive means.

As the number of consumers seeking eco-friendly alternatives rise, so does the number of companies trying to talk the talk, without walking the walk! When is being ‘green’ a red mark against your brand?

What are the types of greenwashing?

Greenwashing comes in many forms and as a consumer it’s important to be able to make the relevant observations and distinctions to ensure you’re shopping in a way that aligns with your particular values. Similarly, if you’re a brand genuinely concerned about bettering your practices and the planet, then you need to be able to substantiate your claims, make it easy for consumers to see what you’re doing and how you’re making a difference.

There are a few ways that brands have been caught out for misleading consumers and trying to give off the ‘green sheen’. Common types of greenwashing include:

  1. Looking green

  2. Making confusing or vague claims

  3. Unsubstantiated or incorrect claims

Looking green

Looking green relates to the use of specific imagery or colours that give the impression of a certain commitment to eco-friendliness that may appeal to consumers less inclined to research the brand fully, falsely persuading them that the product is better for the planet than is actually the case.

This can be anything from using ‘earth’ colours such as palettes of greens and browns, to the classic eco-brown cardboard-style packaging. Combine this with imagery such as plants, leaves and greenery and it can be easy for consumers, on a quick glance, to take this as a trust signal when compared with rows of shiny foils, plastics and bright or synthetic colours.

An example of ‘looking green’: cups and food containers designed with use of specific imagery or colours that give the impression of a commitment to eco-friendliness which may not exist.

This psychological play on our senses doesn’t just stop with how products look, however. Sometimes brands even go as far as making intentionally vague claims alongside these packaging choices, which can make discerning the genuinely ‘green’ products difficult unless you’re willing to put in the work and do your research.

What's more, big brands are at it. Coca-Cola’s claims to be saving ‘ocean-bound’ plastic for their bottles have drawn a fair share of criticism.

Making confusing or vague claims

In April 2023, Etihad Airways’ advertising campaign about ‘sustainable aviation’ was banned by the Advertising Standard Authority over misleading consumers about the environmental impact of flying with the operator.

Vague and confusing claims are a symptom of brands suffering from a case of ‘green sheen’. This can often be in the form of on-package, attention-grabbing stats, ‘data’ and so on. You will see many brands claiming that this version of their product uses X percent less plastic, which on the face of it seems like a positive step (and of course, any reduction is good, however all may not be as it appears).

Similarly, Shell recently had three ads banned for 'overstating its investment in renewable and clean energy while failing to clarify the majority of its business is based on environmentally-damaging products such as petrol'.

Many companies make claims and then hide loose data or information in the very small print. The reduction may be incredibly minimal when you delve deeper - using a percentage allows for artificial inflation of the results of their actions. A brand may use words such as ‘certified’ or ‘organic’ which allows them to appear more credible, without necessarily backing this up.

Consumers should naturally be wary of this kind of information; those that can substantiate their claims usually do! As a brand, be prepared to answer any questions you may get. Consider, for example, having dedicated quick facts, stats and content on your website or products that clearly spell out your commitment to helping do your part for the planet.

Etihad Airways Boeing 777 on approach to runway at JFK International Airport in New York, USA. The airline faced accusations of greenwashing in their recent ad campaign.

Unsubstantiated or incorrect claims

While this is a more extreme version of the above, many companies have been caught out for outright lying or completely inflating claims relating to their green credentials.

A major example of this includes Volkswagen’s ‘Clean Diesel’ debacle. In this instance, the car manufacturer was ordered to pay $14.7 billion to settle a court case for cheating emissions tests. It had claimed that it was able to ensure diesel emitted less pollutants, but when challenged, it became clear that the brand had created devices to give the appearance of fewer emissions on 11 million vehicles. When tested properly, these were actually emitting levels up to 40 times over the US limit.

Logo of car manufacturer Volkswagen on a sign outside of a commercial office building.

This is especially dangerous if coming from a major brand which has the equity and trust built in to effectively dupe consumers.

The impact that greenwashing can have on your brand

It is possible for brands to greenwash accidentally, or at least in part - simply because they do not understand the term, or what a true commitment to the environment really looks like. This is why it is important to understand the claims you make and the impact it may have on your brand if you are not clear in the way you demonstrate this to consumers.

Brands that engage in this practice either knowingly or unknowingly are at risk of alienating socially conscious consumers, which is an increasing number — nine in 10 consumers agree that sustainability packaging, social good and your ethical reputation are important when they choose who to spend money with.

Based on numbers like this, acts of greenwashing could be very harmful to your reputation. Impassioned consumers expect more from their chosen brands and are not afraid to take them to tak should they fall short. Social media means reputation management is harder than ever - a single tweet, TikTok or blog post could total your carefully-crafted persona and dramatically impact your loyalty, trust and equity in your sector (as there will always be a competitor waiting to show your audiences how much better they are)!

How do I avoid greenwashing?

When planning your eco-promotions, these dos and don’ts should come in handy:

  • Don’t assume your customers won’t check or expect data to substantiate your claims

  • Don’t try to ‘look green’ without substantiation

  • Don’t make misleading or false claims to inflate your efforts

  • Don’t commit to anything you cannot follow through with

  • Do make realistic and achievable goals

  • Do utilise any data that you have to support your claims

  • Do make clear and distinct statements about your activity

Does some of this resonate with you? Maybe you feel you may have made some mistakes in the past, or you’d like to appeal to eco-consumers without falling foul of the pitfalls? Then get in touch and let us know your green credentials today - our expert team will help you to leverage them in the right way.

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Post by

Team Amy K


Head of Brand & Content

Amy joined in 2014 to set up our Content department. She now heads up a growing Brand and Content team, utilising over 13 years’ experience to deliver brand awareness through targeted, multi-channel copy. As well as engaging content for websites and blogs, Amy delivers PR strategies and tone of voice exploration, helping clients to communicate the purpose and values of their brand with maximum impact.

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