The term greenwashing describes advertising with supposedly ecological and sustainable products or services whose actual ecological and sustainable value has is much lower than advertised.
This is used in public relations or advertising and is intended to encourage potential customers to buy a product or service with the help of a "green image".
However, it is disputed whether only active, i.e. deliberate, misinformation about environmental criteria is considered greenwashing or whether a lack of clarification or sensitivity is also a cause of greenwashing.
Forms of greenwashing
Even the pictures and symbols on packaging can give consumers a false impression. One example are egg cartons or meat packaging that show free-range animals, when the animals are actually kept indoors.
False statements, unclear terms and missing evidence
Non-certified quality labels or various terms are also a problem, e.g. the terms "environmentally friendly", "eco-friendly" or "regional". These are not precisely defined and can be freely interpreted by manufacturers.
Advertising with self-evident facts
Products that do not contain certain environmentally harmful substances are advertised as environmentally friendly. In fact, many of these environmentally harmful substances are banned and may therefore no longer be used. The label "CFC free" on hairsprays is an example of this.
Most products are not holistically environmentally unfriendly or "bad". They might have some aspects that could be considered sustainable which does not make the product as such sustainable. Disguise highlights only the environmentally friendly aspects so that we focus on sustainability and thus the environmentally unfriendly aspects fade into the background. The deliberate use of highlighting "good" and omitting "bad" distorts the picture.
So greenwashing misleads consumers by pretending to be sustainable, which is why we need to talk about it. But of course, not all green advertising is greenwashing. So we have to be even more careful about what we buy and consume and which advertising promises we trust.
Thought experiment: When shopping, look at the colour of "environmentally friendly" products, you will often find the colour green. In red, these products would not seem environmentally friendly, would they?
Greenwashing exists on a small and large scale in all economic sectors and fields of daily life.
Energy companies or oil companies, such as BP, also try to improve their image through green outdoor advertising. BP, for example, advertised that it was investing in solar energy. In the end, however, this investment amounted to only per cent of BP's expenditure, while the remaining per cent continued to flow into oil.
Many incidences of greenwashing are also known in the textile or fashion industry. One example are advertisements that promote a company’s green goals. However, potential customers are led to believe that these goals are already being met which is not the case.
Furthermore, the use of organic cotton is advertised, while there is a lack of transparency regarding the working conditions in the production of the textiles.
What other examples can you think of?
The problem with greenwashing
Deliberate greenwashing is a form of fraud and not only morally reprehensible. Problematically, there are still no legally binding definitions for terms like "environmentally friendly" or "climate-friendly". Another problem is the fluid boundaries: Where does greenwashing begin?
Greenwashing practices mislead consumers, and thus trust in green products can be lost.
Pretending to act green does not improve our footprint either. Only the ecological action itself does that. Companies have a social responsibility to live up to our expectations of their ecological actions.
What can we do?
Greenwashing misleads consumers by pretending to be sustainable, so we have to talk about it. But of course not all green advertising is greenwashing. So we have to be even more careful about what we buy and consume and which advertising promises we trust.
A critical approach to advertising is important and we should always critically question the claims made by suppliers and gather information ourselves.
When shopping, it is also important to make sure that a seal of quality is official.
Furthermore, when buying regional and seasonal products we can avoid long transportation routes and be more sustainable.
When you go shopping next time: check where the allegedly eco-friendly products have come from.
This article was translated from German.
CSR and forms of greenwashing: https://reset.org/knowledge/greenwashing-%E2%80%93-die-dunkle-seite-der-csr