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It Ain't Easy Being Actually Green

tl;dr: Just because a company claims to be green doesn't actually mean they are. You've just been greenwashed.

The word green has become synonymous with environmental issues. Do not for one moment think that the marketing world isn't completely aware of this. As sustainability and climate issues become more and more important, the desire of companies to portray their "incredible stewardship" is increasingly prevalent. Unfortunately, claiming to be green and actually being green are in some cases very far apart.

The term for falsely claiming environmental benefits is called greenwashing, and it is far more common than you might think. Why in the world would a company spin their product to be conservation-friendly? If you are genuinely confused about the motivation, then you definitely do not live in a free-market capitalist society. For the rest of us that can't make this claim, the obvious answer is: money.

According to a recent Business News Daily article, there has been a 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally. A McKinsey & Co. survey from their State of Fashion 2020 report stated that 66% of people surveyed consider sustainability when making a purchase. Millennials were even more concerned, with an impressive 75%. There is quite a bit at stake if companies can convince consumers that their products are superior in this category. It would be unfair to diminish genuine efforts that many companies take to increase their CSR (corporate social responsibility), but the frustrating aspect is that there are also large numbers of companies who are making some pretty dubious claims just to increase sales. At times, businesses actually make more effort to deceive consumers than it would take just to actually do the actions that would legitimately qualify their products to be "green."

Greenwashing has been categorized into seven sins of greenwashing, popularized by Underwriting Laboratory's environmental consulting arm, TerraChoice. The seven sins of greenwashing are as follows:

  1. Hidden Trade-off: "solve" one problem, only to create another one. A popular example of this is McDonald's proudly switching from plastic straws to paper ones. Great news, right? Well, unfortunately, the plastic straws were recyclable and the paper ones were not. That's not really important when clearly everyone knows that paper is far better than plastic. Except in the multitudes of cases where it actually isn't.

  2. No Proof: making environmental claims not backed up with factual evidence or third-party verification. This is commonly found in situations where a product has a certain percentage of its content coming from consumer-recycled content. Go to the grocery store and see facial tissues or toilet paper claiming to have recycled content in it. Many of these either don't or have far less amounts than claimed.

  3. Vagueness: making environmental claims that lack specificity. Look for terms like "all natural", "eco", "organic", and "sustainable". Sustainability will experience something called term dilution, which is when overuse and loose qualifications result in a word that loses its meaning. What the hell is organic dry cleaning? I have no idea, and no regulating body seems to know, either. It sure sounds awesome, though, doesn't it?

  4. Worshipping False Labels: this is the practice of creating false certifications. There are actual green certifiers. LEED, Energy Star, Green Seal, ISO 14001 are some examples of bona fide issuers of certifications. Do you know who isn't on this list? Greenlist, an entity created by SC Johnson to self-certify that Windex is a green product.

  5. Irrelevance: making a claim that might be true but is completely unimportant to what consumers are looking for. Does it matter if a product is non-GMO (Genetically modified organism)? A can might state "CFC-Free", but if it did contain CFC (Chlorofluorocarbons), that company would be breaking the law. It's just meant to deceive you into thinking that it's a green product.

  6. Lesser of Two Evils: This is when companies use factual information to distract you from the fact that what they are doing is far from environmentally or sustainably friendly. Energy companies might tout synthetic jet fuel as a way to decarbonize flying, but the carbon footprint of the process is about the same as conventional jet fuel.

  7. Fibbing: Lastly, there is just flat-out lying. The best example of this is Volkswagen's diesel scandal where they claimed to be emission friendly but in fact, all they did was program the engines to defeat US emissions tests.

As sustainability and climate change issues become part of the daily language, there is no doubt that businesses will find more and more ways to falsely project their image as being a green organization. There are thousands of companies that are legitimately working in the space of environmentalism. It is surely infuriating to them that others get to enhance revenue, prestige, or market share by misleading the public. An upcoming module on Greenheart's SIMON platform will be all about greenwashing, and we at Greenheart Partners are fiercely committed to highlighting the companies fully deserving of the green label and calling out the others who pretend to be. Let's use money to discourage those businesses that are willing to exploit this critical issue for their own financial gain by not supporting them. It is the only way that they will stop participating in this awful practice.

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