Greenwashing can cloud a company’s sustainable and ethical business practices.

Not all companies that claim to prioritize Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors are truly committed to sustainable and ethical business practices. “Greenwashing” makes it difficult for consumers to know the difference between marketing and action.

“Greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an essay criticizing the irony of the “save the towel” movement in hotels at the time, according to 

“He noticed the vast amount of waste he had come across throughout the rest of the hotel, where there were no visible signs of efforts being made to become more sustainable,” writer Deena Robinson explained. “He said that instead, the hotel was simply trying to reduce costs by not having to wash towels as much but while trying to market it as being eco-friendly.”

Greenwashing today refers to the practice of making exaggerated or misleading claims about a company’s environmental, social, or governance practices to appeal to consumers concerned about sustainability and ethics.

Greenwashing can take many forms, from using vague or meaningless terms like “eco-friendly” or “natural, to making outright false claims about a product’s environmental impact.

For example, a company might market a product as “biodegradable” when it degrades at an extremely slow rate, thus contributing to long-term pollution. Similarly, organizations may highlight a single eco-friendly aspect of their operations while neglecting other unsustainable practices that add up to more harm overall. This selective disclosure misleads consumers, preventing them from making informed decisions and effectively addressing environmental challenges. By misrepresenting practices, companies can divert attention from their actual environmental footprint, making it difficult to assess the true sustainability of their operations. 

Overstated Sustainability Efforts

In a 2022 Harris Poll for Google Cloud survey of 1,491 executives across 16 countries, 58% agreed that “green hypocrisy” exists and their organization has “overstated their sustainability efforts.”

Executives in the study did report that they wanted more transparency and opportunity to overcome their top barriers – 87% agreed that “if business leaders can be more honest about the issues they face with becoming more environmentally sustainable, they can make meaningful progress.”

Technological advancements are being considered a priority investment alongside sustainability, so companies can streamline operations, socialize initiatives to appease consumers and encourage other companies to make impactful changes, and measure and report on the impact of their efforts to encourage future progress.

Avoid Falling Victim to Greenwashing.

Consumers wield significant power through their purchasing decisions. Individuals can influence business practices and drive positive change by becoming more aware of greenwashing and demanding transparency and accountability from companies.

Here’s how consumers can exercise their purchasing power effectively:
  • Do your own research. Take the time to read about a company’s ESG practices and investigate any claims they make about their sustainability and ethics. Look for credible sources of information, such as independent sustainability rating agencies or reports from reputable NGOs. 
  • Look for third-party certifications and labels. There are many certifications and designations that can indicate a product’s environmental or social credentials, such as the Forest Stewardship Council certification for sustainable forestry or the Fair Trade mark for ethical labor practices.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If a company makes a claim about its sustainability or ethics that seems too good to be true, ask for more information. A truly committed, sustainable, or ethical company should be happy to provide detailed information about its ESG practices.
  • Vote with your wallet. Use your purchasing power to support companies that align with your values and avoid those that engage in greenwashing. When consumers collectively favor sustainable options, it sends a clear message to businesses that sustainability is a priority and influences their strategic decisions.
The concept of greenwashing can undermine the efforts of truly committed, sustainable, and ethical companies and mislead eco-conscious consumers.

By being knowledgeable about the products and brands you purchase and support, you can navigate the world and make informed decisions that align with your own sustainable goals of lowering your carbon footprint.

There are many companies taking steps to have a positive impact, however, and these companies should be applauded. Read our blog to learn more about ESG criteria and how it is helping companies reduce their carbon footprints.

Refer to the Market section on the One Planet Life app for a list of sustainable brands, products, and services.

Written by Carley Kimball

Written by Carley Kimball

Freelance Journalist and OPL Content Contributor

“I’ve always tried to implement planet-friendly practices in my life but didn’t quite realize just how much of an impact individuals can make until I was introduced to One Planet Life. I’m so excited to be able to utilize my professional skills to contribute valuable information and positive personal experiences to help make the world a better place.”