Greenwashing; sustainability as a marketing strategy

Lizet Wesselman - 24/03/2023

Greenwashing; sustainability as a marketing strategy

Lizet Wesselman - 24/03/2023

Have you recently seen a company claim they’re “green” or “eco-friendly” but wondered if they’re actually all that sustainable? Well, you might be onto something. Greenwashing is when companies make exaggerated or false claims about being environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, with sustainability becoming more important, more companies will make these claims to drag in customers who’d otherwise go to really sustainable companies. So, what exactly is greenwashing and why is it a problem?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, in a nutshell, is advertising a sustainable aspect of the company, while they actually don’t really care. But sustainability is a hot topic. We have all these sustainable targets to meet and companies are pretending they are making an effort to do their part. However, a lot of times it’s only a small effort that doesn’t actually make a difference, and just covers up the damage the company is actually doing. So down the line, greenwashing is basically a marketing strategy of brands to get people to believe they are environmentally friendly, which they actually aren’t.

“Sustainable” clothing brands

Think, for instance, of clothing brands whose production staff work in the harshest conditions, in factories that are on the verge of collapse and flooded with the bad exhaust fumes such a factory brings. Yet, every brand now seems to have a sustainable collection, often made from sustainable cotton. All to keep up appearances that they are doing their best for the environment. And although these sustainable clothing lines are often a greener alternative, it’s usually just a small part of the business’ production. Therefore, the impact is so limited, that it doesn’t deserve to be promoted as sustainable.

CO2 compensation airlines

A well-known example in the travel world is regarding airlines claiming to be “carbon-neutral” by using offset programs. You know, those little contributions they ask you to do to compensate for your flight. Theoretically, if everybody paid that compensation, it would definitely make up for some of the CO2 emissions.

However, be honest, do you always pay that compensation? Unfortunately, most people don’t. And those airlines definitely don’t bring up the amount they didn’t get from the travellers. So, maybe 1% will compensate for their flight, but that doesn’t even remotely come close to being carbon-neutral.

The European Union has accused several major airlines, including Ryanair, easyJet, British Airways, and Lufthansa, of misleading consumers by making these claims without disclosing the full extent of their carbon emissions. The EU alleges that these airlines have engaged in greenwashing by making false or exaggerated claims about their environmental sustainability efforts. The lawsuits are an attempt to hold these airlines accountable for their misleading claims and promote transparency in sustainability practices.

Why is greenwashing such an issue?

A lot of people know a tiny bit about sustainability. If you want to make sustainable choices with limited knowledge, you quickly fall into a trap. If you’re trying to be environmentally conscious, you want to know that the products and services you’re using are actually sustainable. If companies are lying about it, you could be supporting practices that are harmful to the planet without even realizing it.

To avoid falling for greenwashing, make sure to do your research. Search for companies that are transparent about their sustainability practices and back up their claims with real actions. And if a company seems too good to be true, it probably is. Use the below tips to avoid falling into the trap of companies’ greenwashing practices.

5 Tips to recognize greenwashing

  1. Look for specific claims: what are they actually doing? Be wary of vague or broad statements, such as “eco-friendly” or “green.” Instead, look for details about a company’s environmental efforts, such as using renewable energy or reducing water usage.

2. Check for third-party certifications: search for products or companies that have been certified by independent third-party organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Environmental Protection Agency. These certifications help verify a company’s sustainability claims.

3. Seek evidence of real action: companies that are truly committed to sustainability will have evidence of their efforts, such as progress reports, case studies, or information on their website detailing their environmental initiatives. Generally, when there’s a big claim on the homepage, it’s greenwashing. But a full website page dedicated to sustainable efforts will give you a detailed overview of the actual efforts.

  1. Be wary of green imagery: especially cosmetics are good at using green colours and images, like leaves and trees, to give the impression that they are environmentally friendly. But once you look beyond those designs and maybe do a quick google search on the brand, it might not be sustainable at all.

5. Be aware of industry standards: different industries have different standards for sustainability. A plane currently doesn’t have the option to choose green energy, but a hotel does. So set different standards for sustainable initiatives.