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What Is Greenwashing and Why Does It Matter?

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The last few years have been filled with eco-buzzwords- from “upcycling” to “climate strikes” to “Net Zero.” They have also, however, been filled with the devastating effects of climate change.

The necessity to shift towards a more sustainable future is clear- and businesses have a critical role to play. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, consumers look to the organisations that promote sustainability and environmental resilience. 

With many businesses jumping at the chance to become more environmentally friendly and reduce their impact in climate change, the term greenwashing has come up a few times. It's no secret that consumers are more environmentally aware and with the increase in 'green marketing', businesses have been taking advantage.

Greenwashing can undermine this trust- and this is a buzzword that is worth learning.

In this article we’ll answer the questions “what is greenwashing?” and “how can you spot greenwashing?” before giving you guidance on avoiding greenwashing as a corporation in 2021.

Read on to find out more.

What is greenwashing?

Put simply, greenwashing occurs when a brand presents themselves as more environmentally friendly than they actually are. This is usually through strong green marketing. This is essentially a business using marketing and PR to present themselves as more environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing could be when a company presents a certain product as better for the environment than it is. On a wider scale, it might be the over-exaggeration of positive environmental policies in a mission statement. These green claims have had an impact on all industries, and many people are losing trust.

Greenwashing is a term created by Jay Westerveld in 1986, used to describe the reuse of hotel towels and the way that this was marketed as an environmental strategy. However, this was actually intended to cut costs. Thus, the term greenwashing was coined.

How to spot greenwashing:

There are a few key ways to spot companies likely to be greenwashing. 

Signs of greenwashing & examples:

Aside from being caught out in a complete lie, the main sign of greenwashing is when a brand makes vague, sweeping statements. This could be writing “all environmentally friendly” on their website, for example. 

Genuine eco-friendly brands, on the other hand, will be able to describe specifics of their policies or products. They will detail their operations and often provide proof from third parties. They will also likely contribute to environmental issues.

A good example of this type of greenwashing is H&M’s “green, 100% cotton range.” Since these clothes take about 20,000 liters of water to produce, it cannot reasonably be presented as sustainable or “green.”

Occasionally organisations will also make a true claim, but one that is irrelevant to their business in order to improve their image. For example, CFCs have been banned nationally for a number of years, but many organisations will still write “no CFC’s” on their packaging. 

Another clear  greenwashing example is when a brand over-emphasises an eco-friendly area of operations as a way of drawing attention away from another, less eco-friendly area. 

A great example of this is when Coca Cola committed to not getting rid of their plastic bottles, but a few months later promoted the limited use of their recycled bottles as sustainability news. As the largest plastic polluter in the world, the minimal use of recycled plastic does not make a dent on their environmental impact.

How greenwashing affects a brand:

Greenwashing, whether intentional or unintentional, can have a hugely negative impact on a brand. 

In the current climate, consumers feel an increasing responsibility to make green choices; making choices on the basis of certain “facts” and then finding out that they have been misled or lied to can be very harmful to trust and loyalty. As a result, greenwashing is proven to lower buying intention and brand credibility.

How to avoid greenwashing: 

There are a few key steps to take to avoid greenwashing.

The first is to ensure that all your environmental claims are not only clear, but backed with evidence and explained in full. To check this, you should view all your claims from the perspective of a skeptic. It goes without saying, even the smallest false claims can be damaging.

It’s also important to be cautious. It’s better to say less than to say something incorrect. 

One of the best things you can do to improve your brand’s sustainability and avoid greenwashing is put effort into genuinely moving towards sustainability. Switching to renewable energy is a great place to start. It's cheap and easy to do. From this, you may want to start reducing your companies greenhouse gas emissions and implement sustainable practices.

It is better to start small and slowly take steps to action your businesses affects on environmental issues. Some changes may require massive culture changes and investment so you may want to build a 5-10 year plan. You can use this plan to engage with your customers. However, any claim you make publicly must be met or you could start slipping into greenwashing.

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