What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is conveying a false impression that a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they really are.

Greenwashing is a play on the term "whitewashing," which means using misleading information to gloss over bad behavior.

True green products usually back up their claims with facts and details.

How Greenwashing Works

Also known as "green sheen," greenwashing is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for products that are environmentally sound, whether that means they are more natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, or less wasteful of natural resources.

The term originated in the 1960s when the hotel industry devised one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing. They placed notices in hotel rooms asking guests to reuse their towels to save the environment. The hotels enjoyed the benefit of lower laundry costs.

More recently, some of the world's biggest carbon emitters, such as conventional energy companies, have attempted to rebrand themselves as champions of the environment. Products are greenwashed by renaming, rebranding, or repackaging that conveys the idea that they are more natural, more wholesome, or more free of chemicals than competing brands.

Companies can be greenwashed via press releases and commercials about their clean energy or pollution reduction efforts. The company may or may not be making a meaningful commitment to green initiatives.

Examples of Greenwashing

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers several illustrations of greenwashing on its website, which details its voluntary guidelines for deceptive green marketing claims.

  • A plastic package containing a new shower curtain is labeled “recyclable.” It is not clear whether the package or the shower curtain is recyclable. In either case, the label is deceptive if any part of the package or its contents, other than minor components, cannot be recycled.
  • An area rug is labeled “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. Although technically true, the message conveys the false impression that the rug contains a significant amount of recycled fiber.
  • A trash bag is labeled “recyclable.” Trash bags are not ordinarily separated from other trash at the landfill or incinerator, so they are highly unlikely to be used again for any purpose. The claim is deceptive since it asserts an environmental benefit where no meaningful benefit exists.

Special Considerations

There are, of course, products that genuinely are green. They usually come in packaging that spells out the real differences in their contents from competitors' versions.

The marketers of truly green products are only too happy to be specific about the beneficial attributes of their products. The website for Allbirds, for example, explains that its sneakers are made from merino wool, with laces made from recyclable plastic bottles and insoles that contain castor bean oil. Even the boxes they're delivered in are made from recycled cardboard.

The FCC guidelines are useful to consumers who seek to differentiate real green from greenwashed:

  • Packaging and advertising should explain the product's green claims in plain language and readable type in close proximity to the claim.
  • An environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the product, the packaging, or just a portion of the product or package.
  • A product's marketing claim should not overstate, directly or by implication, an environmental attribute or benefit.
  • If a product claims a benefit compared to the competition, the claim should be substantiated.

Key Takeaways

  • Greenwashing is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for products that are environmentally sound.
  • Greenwashing can convey a false impression that a company or its products are environmentally sound.
  • Truly green products back up their claims with facts and details.