What is greenwashing?

by Stephen Conmy on Aug 8, 2022

What is greenwashing

Greenwashing is when a company makes false claims that its business or products are environmentally friendly.

  • Greenwashing refers to companies purporting to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but not making significant efforts to reduce their environmental impact.
  • Greenwashing is possible even when companies have good intentions.
  • Greenwashing has led to most American consumers disbelieving company sustainability claims.
  • An organisation that greenwashes itself spends more time and money marketing itself as eco-friendly than actually reducing its environmental impact.
  • Greenwashing is a marketing ploy designed to mislead environmentally conscious consumers.

Why is it called greenwashing?

Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986 in response to the irony of hotels’ “save the towel” campaigns that essentially reduced laundry costs.

In recent years, many companies have been caught greenwashing on a large scale.

Examples of companies greenwashing


ExxonMobil was criticised for advertising that experimental algae biofuels might reduce transportation emissions one day. In reality, it remains one of the world’s largest carbon and methane polluters.


The fossil fuel giant BP renamed itself Beyond Petroleum and started installing solar panels on its gas stations. ClientEarth, an environmental group, filed a complaint against BP in December 2019, claiming BP’s ads misled the public by focusing on its low-carbon energy products when more than 96% of its annual budget is spent on oil and gas.


In June 2021, the environmental group Earth Island Institute sued the beverage company for falsely advertising it was sustainable and eco-friendly despite being the world’s largest plastic polluter.


The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) is a Singapore-based nonprofit with the support of Shell, ExxonMobil, and Dow. The organisation claims to be spending $1.5 billion to clean up and reduce the use of plastic bottles in India. Despite this supposed goal, the AEPW not only failed to keep its promise to clean up the Ganges River in India but also announced plans by its members to produce even more plastic.

It pays to be green

Most examples of greenwashing involve embellishing the product or service’s environmental benefits.

It’s easy to understand why marketers are keen to ‘green’ their brands. A report by GreenPrint found that 64% of Gen X consumers would pay more for a product if it came from a sustainable brand, which jumps to 75% among millennials.

VIDEO – How to spot corporate greenwashing

How to avoid greenwashing

To prevent your company from greenwashing, use the following strategies.

  1. Clarify and simplify your claims. Make sure to specify units of measurement (e.g., 20% recycled plastic rather than “made with recycled plastic”). 
  2. Provide data to support your sustainability claims. Provide current data on your website, and anywhere else you make sustainability claims. Verify all data.
  3. Get your operations in order. Making sustainability part of your business model is essential if you want to market your products as eco-friendly. For example, implement sustainable manufacturing and waste disposal practices.
  4. Tell the truth about your brand’s sustainability practices and plans. Tell consumers about your products’ green credentials and the sustainability practices of your company as a whole. You can hold yourself accountable to consumers if you are clear about your goals and targets.
  5. Make sure advertisements and packaging don’t mislead. If your products or brand are not eco-friendly, don’t use images from nature, such as trees and flowers. 

Further reading

The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing

ESG for Directors

Become the ESG expert in your organisation. Rapidly acquire the new and updated thinking you need to navigate the impact of ESG.

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ESG for Directors

Become the ESG expert in your organisation. Rapidly acquire the new and updated thinking you need to navigate the impact of ESG.

Learn more

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