The Tactics of Greenwashing
Greenwashing is a buzzword we’ve likely all heard of – but the word encompasses a huge range of tactics used to spread misinformation to present a more environmentally conscious public image than is true.
With COP26 approaching, there will likely be a spike in greenwashing as businesses and their products try to piggyback off the increased environmental concern from the paying public – of which already 66% would pay more for an eco-friendly product [source].
Unfortunately, the rise in greenwashing results in a consumer trust problem: green scepticism. This negatively impacts those businesses and products that are genuinely environmentally conscious, because it can be so difficult to tell the difference between what is genuine, and what is greenwashed.
We've summed up some of the main tactics of greenwashing using the 2020 systematic review of the concepts and forms of greenwashing (Netto et al). As you’ll see, there can be quite an overlap between tactics and definitions put forward, but we still think this will still help us in our fight against misinformation.
The term greenwashing was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that the Oxford English Dictionary included greenwashing in its pages – defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”
The most well known are the 7 Greenwashing sins, published in 2010 on TerraChoice (and subsequently quoted many times by articles, internet pages, blogs, and so on).
The Sin of the Hidden Tradeoff: By focusing on only one environmental attribute, a product hides its full environmental impact e.g. recycled plastic packaging for a product that is environmentally damaging.
The Sin of No Proof: Claims with no back up. This includes claims which are only backed up by the company/business itself, rather than from a third party.
The Sin of Vagueness: Using empty words or phrases with no evidence or legislation to back that up – e.g. “natural” (vague) vs “RSPCA Assured” (concrete definitions).
The sin of Irrelevance: A truthful claim that is unimportant or unhelpful.
The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: Making a fundamentally environmentally damaging product slightly less damaging – e.g. organic cigarettes.
The Sin of Fibbing: Claims that are simply untrue. We would argue that certain certifications could come under this heading (e.g. a certain logo you may find on your tuna).
The Sin of Exaggerating: A claim that over-emphasises the environmentally friendly aspect of a product or business.
Then, in 2015, Parguel et al. published in the journal “The Review of Marketing Communications” the new form of ‘Executional Greenwashing’.
Executional Greenwashing: No claim is made, but nature-evoking images and colours are used in branding, packaging, etc. This includes the colours green and blue, landscapes like forests and mountains, animals (especially endangered species), sounds from nature, and even sources of renewable energy. This will probably be very familiar to you – or it will be the next time you go into the supermarket.
In 2017, a further two studies provided us with more definitions. Let’s take the one by Scanlan first, published in “The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability”. Scanlan identified 6 types of greenwashing while looking at the fracking industry; however, these can be generally applied to other industries and their claims as well.
The sin of false hopes: Reinforcing a false hope – e.g. the fossil fuel industry talking about “greener fuels” and claiming that they are needed as we transition into renewable energy (you may remember this example from our 12 Arguments blog).
The sin of fearmongering: Fabricates insecurity related to not “buying in” on an industry practice by manipulating public perception of risk or fear of missing the boat. This is not as applicable to every day consumerism, but a theoretical example could be pushing consumers to buy non-electric or hybrid cars because of manufactured panic over their quality or a specific feature.
The sin of broken promises: Promises to stakeholders (this includes consumers, the public, and at times the local community) to encourage investment, buy-in, etc., that are not only broken, but often leave irreversible impacts – e.g. the promised benefits of a new high-speed railway that does not, in practice, benefit most of the communities along the track and in fact damages their local assets.
The sin of profits over people and the environment: Using profits as a reason to exploit people and the environment – e.g. the fast fashion industry is often guilty of this, providing new styles and clothing pieces constantly, to make more money at the expense of its workers and the environment, particularly that local to its factories.
The sin of injustice: Ignoring those most affected by a practice, but promising benefits to others. Typically, disadvantaged groups and the Global South will be losing out here.
The sin of hazardous consequences: Hiding the reality of the environmentally damaging aspects of the product from the public.
Finally, the second study was published by Contreras-Pacheco and Claasen in “Problems and Perspectives in Management” on the greenwashing that came from fuzzy reporting.
Dirty business: The business is unsustainable, but has (and promotes) sustainable practices and products that are not truly representative of them and their business – e.g. fast fashion companies that have one or two ‘sustainable’ lines.
Ad bluster: Diverting attention from sustainable issues through advertising. There are many ways to do this, but one example would be exaggerating achievements that are not related to the main sustainability concern – e.g. a well-known company may promote its fizzy drink product in recycled packaging to avoid addressing the huge environmental damage the production of this drink causes.
Political spin: Influencing regulations or governments in order to obtain benefits for the company (that negatively affect the environment), often justified due to a company being a large taxpayer or employer.
It’s the law, stupid!: Proclaiming sustainability accomplishments or commitments that are already required by existing laws or regulations – e.g. a local council promising to be net-zero by a certain timeframe, which is already a nationwide law.
Fuzzy reporting: Taking advantage of sustainability reports and their nature of one-way communication channel, in order to twist the truth or project a positive image. This is another reason to always check for good quality third-party certifications such as the B Corporation logo.
Do you recognise any of these greenwashing tactics from the products or companies you're familiar with, or buy from? Next time you are buying a product for its environmental promises (even if it is just one factor of many you are considering), see if you can check for any signs of greenwashing, especially the most pervasive such as the use of the colour green or empty words like "natural".