Greenwashing: How To Spot False Environmental Claims

Some companies looking to jump on the sustainability wagon are guilty of greenwashing. Here’s what it is, and how to spot it.

When a company touts one aspect of supposed environmental friendliness, but shirks commitment to sustainability on a larger level, some might call it simple ignorance or a half-baked attempt at going green — but those in the know call it greenwashing.

By definition, greenwashing is when a product or company promotes itself as sustainable, but spends more effort marketing and advertising itself as green than actually implementing practices that minimize environmental harm.


“Going green” is a good thing, even if minimally so, but the implications of greenwashing — when reality matches or contradicts publicity claims — can be both environmentally harmful and misleading.

How to spot greenwashing

According to the latest Sins of Greenwashing report (2010), 95 percent of products claiming to be green violated at least one “sin” of greenwashing — which include unproven claims and vague marketing language.

Without a little sleuthing, it’s hard to tell the greenwashers apart from the genuinely green. It’s also hard to detect whether the perpetrator is being purposefully deceptive; after all, a little bit of green is better than no green at all.

Here are three ways to help you spot and expose greenwashing when it washes up.

1. Look for the signs

According to the sustainability agency Futerra’s Greenwashing Guide, things to look for in advertisements or product labeling include fluffy language, nonsensical claims, and made-up endorsements or facts. Here are the signs to look for:


2. Do your research

If a product of company meets these criteria, and even if they do not, the next step is to do some surface research — or even deep research, if you feel up to digging. It’s as easy as Googling the name plus “environment” to surface some relevant information that can help you make an informed purchase.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”9N5o25ujWtdbnpIrFnWZWo02CWeQ1pEb”]

If the product has a third party verification (for example, Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance, and Utz Certified) and lists specific details and commitments, you can have greater confidence in its credibility.

3. Check out online ratings, or rate the advertisements you see online

  • Green America Shopping Guide is a resource that indexes hundreds of company profiles by corporate responsibility. You can search any company to see if they have a history of environmental abuse.
  • The Greenwashing Index helps consumers to rate and share advertisements, and determine their level of honesty. Submit the ad you see for input, or comment on other submissions with your own investigative two cents.

Worst offenders

You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? Not everything can be green, or ethical, and it’s nearly impossible to navigate the world without being complicit in some sort of behind-the-scenes harm.

While this is certainly true, greenwashing comes down not just to environmental harm, but lying — which hurts both consumers, a company’s reputation, and does a disservice to those the green movement on a whole.


For an idea on whom the worst offenders might be, take a look again at the Futerra’s Greenwashing Guide, which looks at UK industries in 2006 and 2007:

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In specific, companies like Volkswagen, General Electric, American Electric Power, ExxonMobil, DuPont, and BP have been called out as some of the worst greenwashers out there.

In Volkswagen’s case, the company falsely advertised their supposedly “clean” diesel engines, according to a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. Volkswagen’s greenwashing used a cheating algorithm to make it appear that the engines were much cleaner than they really were.

How companies can do better

Public consciousness on spotting greenwashing isn’t enough to stop it; activists encourage companies to make the necessary efforts to avoid it, if they want to avoid backlash and preserve their integrity.

The Greenwashing Guide suggests that companies, organizations, etc:

  1. Be clear. Publish your policy, and be transparent
  2. Make friends. Have your claims checked by third party green advisors
  3. Stand up and be counted. Inform clients of your policy up front, so you don’t end up with bad business that defies it

At the end of the day, those that wish to live in a greener, more environmentally and ethically-minded world, should call out greenwashing when they see it, take pains to avoid it, and encourage better policy all around.

Updated. Cover photo courtesy of fotdmike via Flickr.

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