The majority of American consumers today are willing to pay more for products that seem good for the environment. Corporations want their business. Unfortunately, some resort to a dishonest marketing tactic called greenwashing. Let’s look at some of the worst greenwashing examples and see what we can learn from them.
American consumers started to care about environmental issues in the 1960s. After Earth Day in 1970, the environment was the most popular political issue. Many American companies started to explore ways to take better care of the environment.
No company has yet succeeded in making truly sustainable products. There will always be a gap between what they aspire to and what they accomplish.
Unfortunately, other companies have only wanted to make it look like they care about the environment. They make little attempt to take care of the environment, but their marketing departments want consumers to think they have a good impact.
Do you want an operational definition of greenwashing?
Advertisements and corporate social media campaigns call attention to some small “eco-friendly” aspect of their operation and hide their larger contribution to environmental degradation.
Table of Contents
Some of the worst examples of greenwashing
It is hard to think of any case of greenwashing more egregious than what Volkswagen was caught doing in 2015. It was not a case of their marketing campaign exaggerating their accomplishments to deceive consumers. Instead, the corporation sought to deceive regulators.
Volkswagen equipped its diesel vehicles with special software that detected when they were being inspected. Under testing conditions, the vehicles temporarily lowered their emissions. At the same time it advertised advanced engineering to reduce pollution, its products emitted 40 times more nitrogen oxide than EPA regulations allowed.
As the greenwashing scandal unfolded, the company had to confess to its deception and the CEO had to resign. Just think what it could have done if it had devoted its ingenuity to engineering vehicles that could have passed inspection honestly!
The auto industry offers plenty of greenwashing products, but hardly on the scale of Volkswagen.
Ryanair, an Irish ultra-low-cost airline, can serve as an example of a company that was ordered by a regulatory agency to withdraw an advertising campaign. There are plenty more, and I am not claiming that Ryanair’s campaign was more misleading than other airline greenwashing efforts.
Ads in the press and on air claimed that Ryanair was “Europe’s Lowest Fares, Lowest Emission Airline.” The company based its claim on having the youngest fleet of planes, the highest load factors, and the most fuel-efficient engines.
The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) investigated numerous complaints and ruled that the ads were misleading and unsubstantiated.
Even if Ryanair could prove that its emissions are demonstrably less than other airlines, air transportation as a whole is a high-emissions industry. No one helps the environment by flying at all.
As the COP26 climate summit took place in Glasgow in 2021, British bank HSBC, the largest bank in Europe, put up billboards and posters at bus stops touting its initiatives in combatting climate change. It helped to plant two million trees in England to sequester 1.25 million tons of carbon and provided up to $1 trillion to help its clients work to achieve net zero. However, the ads failed to acknowledge that it ranked 13th among international banks in financing fossil fuels.
Complaints to the ASA called the ads misleading. The ASA upheld the complaint, saying that the ads withheld material information and therefore gave the average consumer a false impression of the bank’s environmental impact. It ruled that the bank could no longer run such ads without acknowledging its own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
At the end of 2022, HSBC announced that it would no longer finance new fossil fuel projects. Taking legal action against greenwashing brands can persuade some of them to change their policies.
For the rest of the list of worst greenwashing examples, let’s look at industries as a whole instead of focusing on one company.
4. The fast fashion industry
The fashion industry as a whole contributes 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Fast fashion contributes an outsized portion of that. Its business model provides cheap (not just inexpensive) clothing in the latest styles. As fashions change, purchasers discard those clothes and buy the next big thing.
Fast fashion therefore encourages repeated turnover of clothing made from polyester and other oil-based synthetic fabrics. Discarded clothing ends up either in landfills or incinerators.
And yet H&M touts a sustainability collection called “Conscious Choice.” Watchdog groups have determined that H&M’s misleading claims make it a greenwashing brand and filed suit.
5. Plastics recycling
The glut of plastic waste began to alarm municipal waste management agencies as early as the 1970s. In 1988, Suffolk County, New York on Long Island attempted to outlaw plastic shopping bags. The plastics industry sued and forced the county to repeal the law. It also mounted a lobbying campaign to persuade state governments make it illegal for other local governments to restrict plastic.
The industry has touted plastics recycling as a solution to the problem of plastics in the waste stream. Yet only a few kinds of plastic are recyclable. There is no market for much of it. Most of the recyclable plastics wind up in the waste stream instead of the recycling stream.
Plastics recycling doesn’t work. As it turns out, the plastics industry knew as early as the 1970s that plastics recycling is not economically viable. The only solution to the problem of plastics is to manufacture less of it in the first place. Instead, the industry protects its turf with a long-running greenwashing campaign.
6. Beverage companies
The non-profit company Keep America Beautiful began to run anti-litter public service announcements in the 1950s. As it turns out, Keep America Beautiful was sponsored by big beverage companies such as Coca Cola. At the same time these companies tried to get consumers to dispose of trash properly, they lobbied to thwart any legislative efforts to ban or regulate non-refillable bottles.
In a sense, beverage companies are only a subset of plastics industry greenwashing, but they include more recognizable greenwashing brands.
Coca Cola has long ranked as the worst plastic polluter in the world. It has no intention of discontinuing plastic bottles and claims that it intends to retrieve all of its bottles by 2030. As long as it leaves responsibility for collection to municipalities—including in third world countries where no recycling infrastructure exists—it should know it will not come close.
Starbucks has touted a straw-less lid. Big deal. That lid uses more plastic than the lid and straw combination it replaces. What’s more, the lid is made of polypropylene, which is not one of the two plastics where recycling most nearly works.
Keurig’s claim that its single-use pods are completely recyclable is even more of a joke. Probably no municipal recycling program accepts them. They are so small and lightweight that they would inevitably get lost in the sorting equipment and end up contaminating bales of other kinds of materials. Toronto imposed a $3 million fine to force it to drop the claim from its advertising.
7. Oil companies
It would be better for the planet if fossil fuel companies considered themselves in the energy business rather than the oil or coal business. That way, they would lead the transition to renewable energy. And they want us to think that’s the direction they’re moving.
Corporate websites of BP, Shell, and Chevron hardly mention oil at all in their descriptions of their corporate identities. Their public relations campaigns, including social media posts by their CEOs, make it seem like the companies intend to decarbonize their operations.
Somewhat more than 10% of Big Oil’s capital expenditures go toward natural gas, which they claim are low-carbon investments. It is only low carbon compared with the other nearly 90% of its capital expenditures devoted to oil. ExxonMobil, for example, devoted only 0.2% of its capital expenditures to renewable energy between 2010 and 2018.
BP installed solar panels on many of its gas stations. That little bit of renewable energy doesn’t begin to offset emissions from oil, to which the company devotes 96% of its capital expenditures.
Most oil companies actively lobby against renewable energy policies or any legislative or regulatory attempt to phase out use of fossil fuels. Regardless of the appearances they cultivate in their advertising, web pages, and social media posts, they do not act like energy companies. They are still very much oil companies and among the worst examples of greenwashing brands.
Red flags in greenwashing advertising
Green Biz has provided an article aimed at advertisers to help them avoid charges of greenwashing. As consumers, we can look at the list of terms to avoid. It will let us know which marketing campaigns not to take seriously when deciding what to buy.
I’m not attempting to describe every term in that article. There’s a link to it in the source list at the bottom of the post for anyone who is interested. These terms should be enough to give you an idea of what ought to invite your skepticism. We have seen some of them in the list of worst greenwashing examples.
Vague, meaningless terms
Terms such as “natural,” “healthy,” “pure,” “plant-based,” “nontoxic,” “eco-friendly,” “green,” “sustainable,” or “environmentally friendly” have no legal definition. Marketing agencies will probably not get in legal trouble for using them, but they don’t really mean anything.
Similarly, anyone can use pictures of nature scenes on packaging or in advertisement. They conjure up visions of purity and cleanliness, but we should know better than to be swayed by them.
If a company wants to use these terms, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends qualifying them with “clear, prominent, and specific” benefits.
Carbon offsets, renewable energy credits
It is legal for companies to purchase carbon offset credits to reduce their carbon footprint. That is, they can pay to plant trees or some other project that takes carbon out of the atmosphere. Or they can purchase renewable energy credits from developers of solar farms or other renewable energy projects.
These programs are too complicated to explain in an advertisement or on packaging. At this writing, the FTC has not issued guidelines for mentioning offsets in marketing, but it is working on them.
As the case of HSBC’s tree planting illustrates, if a company touts carbon offsets that don’t offset a significant percentage of their emissions, and if the offsets are not accompanied by attempts to decarbonize the company’s core operations, it is committing greenwashing.
Compostable / biodegradable
If you compost at home, you know that the food scraps and other organic material you put on your compost pile will soon rot and essentially become dirt. That other organic material includes paper.
If a company advertises a product as compostable or biodegradable, most people would think it means they can add it to their compost pile and it will soon disintegrate. In fact, many kinds of packaging are compostable only in industrial facilities that can achieve higher temperatures than a home compost pile.
Be very skeptical of claims that a product is compostable or degradable. Otherwise, it may still be intact in your compost a year after you put it there.
In theory, everything ought to be recyclable. In practice, it’s not. Let your local recycling program, not the product package, tell you what is and is not recyclable. Otherwise, you are only practicing aspirational recycling—wishcycling, as it is sometimes called
I have seen a picture of a plastic shopping bag with a printed proclamation that it is reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable. You can’t put plastic bags out at the curb with your regular recycling. You have to take them back to a store that collects them.
But here’s another thing about that bag: if anything is biodegradable, it is not recyclable. A biodegradable bag is made of a different kind of plastic than the ones you can take back to the store. But anyone can print all those words on a plastic bag (colored green, no less) to make unwary consumers feel comfortable with it.
Free of . . .
Years ago, the evils of preservatives in foods seemed to be mentioned in every edition of every newspaper. So up and down grocery aisles, packaging claimed “no preservatives.” Including all the fruit preserves in the jelly aisle! How can you make preserves without preservatives?
By the same token, CFCs were banned years ago for their danger to the ozone layer. Long after they became illegal, some aerosol packaging proclaimed the product was free of CFCs. Of course it was, and so was every competing product by that time.
So if a package or advertisement boasts not containing some substance, ask yourself if it really matters even if it’s true.
Other meaningless comparisons
Suppose a product proclaims that now it has 50% more recycled content than before. If it went from 40% recycled content to 60%, it might be impressive. If it went from 2% to 3%, it doesn’t mean anything.
You might also find a product claiming that it has less waste or is less toxic ingredients. Less than what? Or maybe, like Ryanair, it claims to be less wasteful or toxic than competing brands. In the absence of meaningful statistics, it’s only greenwashing. Ignore it.
A warning about warnings
The whole point of this post has warned against believing all claims that a product or company is good for the environment. They may be greenwashing examples. You can easily find dozens of other posts with similar warnings online.
Here’s something you won’t see in most of them: don’t automatically believe all charges of greenwashing.
Many environmentalists hate big corporations. They will accuse industry giants of bad faith as a reflex.
Remember. I wrote earlier that no one has yet developed fully sustainable products. No corporation has ever developed fully sustainable sustainability goals, either. Greenwashing means a deliberate attempt to mislead, not inadequately bold goals.
Walmart is one company everyone loves to hate. As is the case with the entire retail sector, most of its emissions come from the supply chain, not its stores or warehouses. In 2017, Walmart started Project Gigaton to encourage its suppliers to take action on climate issues. I personally investigated Walmart’s attempts to influence its supply chain long before that.
There is no point in accusing Walmart of greenwashing only because someone can point out that its efforts aren’t enough.
Unilever has emerged as a leader in corporate sustainability, but it is also a leading plastic polluter. It sells a variety of products, including shampoo, lotions, condiments, and sauces, in little plastic sachets.
Many poor people in developing countries can’t afford to buy bottles or jars of those products. The empty sachets become an environmental scourge. Unilever announced a plan to recycle them. It involved encouraging waste pickers to collect sachets from the streets and trash dumps and turn them in for money.
The plan has been an expensive failure so far. Trying something bold and not succeeding does not justify accusing Unilever of greenwashing over it unless it can be demonstrated that Unilever never intended for it to succeed.
Third-party environmental certification seals
It would seem that if a package has some kind of certification seal, some third-party group has determined that it is a good choice environmentally.
The USDA Organic seal, for example, certifies that the food has passed strict standards of organic farming. Others certify sustainable building practices, low emissions, non-toxic products, corporate social and environmental performance, or ethical working conditions.
The Green Biz article recommends against marketers relying on those seals.
Even the Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council, at least, have been accused of greenwashing!
Are these greenwashing accusations true? Decide only after you have taken the effort to investigate. Mistakes, failures, and inadequate plans do not constitute the level of dishonesty necessary to make accusations of greenwashing credible.
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5 ways to spot a company that is greenwashing / Eco-nnect, July 21, 2020
10 shocking greenwashing examples: the dark side of sustainability / Nabaneeta Saha, Your Sustainable Guide. April 25, 2023
A brief history of greenwash / Joshua Karliner, CorpWatch. March 22, 2001
Examples of greenwashing / Alison Plaut, The Motley Fool. September 19, 2022
Greenwashing terms to avoid at any cost / Elsa Wenzel, Green Biz. January 4, 2023
Oil companies say they’re going green, but their investments tell another story / Kate Yoder, Grist. September 9, 2022