how to help your conscious brand stand out in a sea of greenwashing

Let’s talk greenwashing & what to do about it

What is greenwashing?

Initially coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay on the irony of the ‘save the towel’ movement in hotels, the term Greenwashing has been increasingly popular in recent years. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it refers to a behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

Add to that the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of Greenwashing as expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities ” and you have a pretty good picture of how wide Greenwashing can be.

How to identify greenwashing & its many forms

Greenwashing can take on many forms but I love the ‘7 Sins of Greenwashing’ list that ASAP Science shared in their brilliant video “Why Being ‘Environmentally Friendly’ Is A Scam”:

Hidden tradeoffs: when companies talk about fixing one issue, while possibly hiding a bigger one (like making plastic water bottles recyclable… without acknowledging the issue of the amount of waste & environmental toll they still take)

No proof: when companies make (often big, bold) environmental claims but they are not actually backed up by reliable data or sources.

Vagueness: when companies use different tools (like wording, colors, natural imagery, etc.) to give the impression of being more ‘green’ than is actually true. While some countries have laws to regulate some of these behaviors, they vary greatly from one country to the next & are not necessarily highly enforced.

Irrelevance: this can be, for instance, when companies make environmental claims about a certain type of ingredient they exclude, or aspect to their product… but that is legally imposed in their industry anyway.

Lesser of 2 evils: making a product that has a slightly lower environmental impact in a highly polluting industry does not actually make that product sustainable or eco-friendly.

Worshiping false labels: there are so many third party labels out there (and even graphic elements that look like labels but aren’t actually attached to an organization). Not all labels are as legitimate or rigorous about their criteria as others. But seeing a brand with a lot of eco-looking labels can make them seem extra environmentally & ethically conscious.

Fibbing: sometimes, companies outright lie about their environmental impact, hoping it’ll either go unnoticed or be sufficiently beneficial that even if they do get caught the ‘benefits’ outweigh the costs. An other example would be the attitude Westerfeld was referring to in his essay that coined Greenwashing: hotels marketing not washing towels daily as eco-friendly rather than the real motivator, reducing costs.

Add to that the millions, even billions, of dollars in advertising (and legal) resources and highly convincing marketing strategies these brands have. It’s no surprise the cases of greenwashing abound and it can be hard for consumers to tell the difference.

What can ethical & sustainable brands do to show that they don’t just talk the talk but actually walk the eco walk?

While consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to greenwashing, doing their research about brands / products, and calling out more and more brands that fall short… conscious business owners also have a number of opportunities to help fight against, and distance themselves from, greenwashing. Here are a few you can incorporate into your marketing & social media strategy today:

  1. Call out businesses or initiatives that are blatant (or subtle) forms of greenwashing
  2. Create content, or share content created by others (ideally reputable sources in the eco-activism space), talking about the many forms of greenwashing
  3. Share concrete information about what you’re actually putting into place to be more sustainable. Make sure to be transparent, specific and back up your claims.
  4. Work with reputable, legitimate labels & organizations (like getting b corp certified, becoming a 1% for the planet member, donating a specific portion of revenue to organizations like one tree planted…)

What else would you add to this list?

Additional resources: – this website launched by the Changing Markets Foundation, acts as a ‘virtual laundrette’ dedicated to calling out instances of greenwashing, namely in the fashion industry. One recent example? Uniqlo’s “Re.Uniqlo” circularity programme in Japan where clothes brought in for recycling are often simply burnt instead of actually recycled.

The Instagram account @greenwashmyballs – if the name alone doesn’t make you smile as it did me, perhaps this’ll entice you to check it out: the account calls out

The European Commission’s EU Strategy for Textiles report published March 30th 2022, aiming to lay out a framework for greater sustainability and circularity in textiles in the US