What is and Isn’t Greenwashing?

Many of us are familiar with the term “green-washing”. It means that companies are making sustainable claims over their products or production processes while that does not hold true. In doing so, companies are lying to their customers in their efforts to purchasing more sustainable. This tends to be done through marketing, for example by using slogans and product lables that make consumers feel more concious about their purchasing impacts. When these claims do not hold true, consumers are lied at and that is referred to as “green-washing.”

If a shoebrand x does not resell their products, because consumers do not want them, can you call it greenwashing for recycling them into new products?

What does green-washing really mean? Can you think of something? When you google “examples for green-washing” you find products that amongst other use recycled packaging. Here the green-washing claim can be that recycled packaging has little to do with the content of lets say shampoo in a recycled plastic bottle. We don’t know how shampoo is produced, but one may end up buying that shampoo, because the packaging is produced with a lower environmetal footprint. Argumentatively, consumers can have the perception that this refers to the entire product and the shampoo brand might later be associated as a “green-washer.”

In contray to how this company can be called as “green-washer”, the company is also not because it reduces its environmental footprint by using recycled materials to create new shampoo bottles. Therefore, the company is not a green-washer, because its claims hold true. This applies to other companies too that are referred to as “green-washer”. Such an example are certain textile brands that use recycled materials made of plastic waste. While indeed, microplastics can enter the environment during wash of these textiles, these companies are not greenwashing because they utilize waste instead of new production resources for the same or similiar output.

When can it be called greenwashing? Greenwashing in the law context actively refers to companies misleading their consumers into buying something, while what they claim to be does not hold true. Legally speaking this is called fraud and may also be referred to it as such. On contray, companies putting in an effort into reducing their environmental footprint is not fraud and therefore also not green-washing. It is not fraud, because it is something that they are actively doing; even a company that uses marketing which is effective in terms of consumer keeping their products longer, without necessarily changing the product itself, likely does not qualify as green-washing. It is not, because it is real, meaning marketing is used rather directional as oppose to fictional.

Companies less likely engage into greenwashing because of pleasure, but because of fear. Understanding greenwashing, means understanding fear too.

Of course, some companies could do a bit more. Are there better ways then referring to greenwashing right away and why? Overusing the term greenwashing is less likely beneficial because it undermines the efforts companies put into better production processes. In addition to that, efforts can look different and by setting an ideal to how something should be, it becomes difficult to differentiate between efforts and their effectiveness too. Instead of using the term green-washing it could be pointed out what efforts the company is implementing and where it currently runs short on. Contrarily green-washing may be particular used for companies that comit fraud “doing nothing, claiming a lot ” .

If not as many companies actually engage in green-washing, why are so many referred to engaging in it? Often sustainable production processes are compared to extreme ideals. It means that production and consumption practices should not cause environmental and social damage. In addition, the origin of the term “sustainability” comes from forest ecology, in which natural cycles, cycle naturally and hint to why we have such high ideals. When we talk about business logics and all components that go into business practices, including those of consumers, these ideals are difficul to live up to, because business logics tend to operate on different ideals. Also, they do not tend to cylce, like we can see in forest ecology. As a result it becomes difficult for companies to change everything, meaning some companies start with small, but incremental changes, similiar to consumers. Baby steps, also for the big ones ;).


*I decided not to use references for this blog, but experience from my former job as research associate in sustainability business and law terminology from my studies.

Are you currently looking into making your company more sustainable and don’t know where to start? Let me know. I offer sustainability analysis and freelance writing services in the field; making sure that your ideals can be met and remain feasible to yourself and your consumers.

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