Greenwashing 101

By Bailey Chenevert

What is greenwashing?

You’ve seen it in trendy ads with pastel color palettes, on product labels with environmental buzzwords and in clothing stores with racks of cheap clothing tagged as recycled material. In a nutshell, greenwashing is a term dating back to the 1980s that describes companies, organizations or products that boast sustainability efforts while being, at large, environmentally destructive. It’s not surprising companies use this marketing technique considering that in 2015, a majority (66%) of global consumers said they were willing to spend more money on sustainable products than cheaper, unsustainable alternatives. Some greenwashing techniques include exaggerating green achievements to distract from pollution, boasting about green efforts that are mandated by law and, most commonly, touting a green product or policy of a company that is inherently not eco-friendly.

Why is it a problem? 

A growing movement toward environmentalism has made it more profitable to sell eco-friendly goods and services; 2021 is predicted to see $150 billion spent on sustainable products. Unfortunately, switching to more sustainable and ethical production is a big expenditure. Some companies forgo the extra expense, yet still take advantage of the marketing power of green products and services. The main way corporations do this is by appearing to be environmentally-conscious by greenwashing their products. 

As Medium put it, “greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals.” Like tree hugging, greenwashing describes a performative act of corporate environmentalism that has little to no effect on sustaining our planet. In some extreme cases, companies have even grown their profits from launching a line of “eco-friendly” products or marketing a greenwashing label on an existing product, while still being among the world’s leading plastic producers. Simply put, greenwashing allows companies to profit from environmentalism while actively hurting the planet. 

Greenwashing is also misleading to consumers who try to make environmentally-minded purchases. When buying a greenwashed product or service, consumers may think they’re spending money to create a more sustainable marketplace, all the while not knowing they actually just financed an environmentally unsustainable business.

Who is guilty of it?

From shampoo to diesel engines, skinny jeans to coffee grounds, the amount of companies greenwashing their products and services is abundant. Greenwashing can be present on pretty much any product. These notorious examples of greenwashing stand out from the rest. 

1. H&M

The Scandinavian retailer has been involved in a number of greenwashing campaigns. Of the most recent was the company’s new line of clothing made with Circulose, a sustainable fabric using upcycled cotton jean fabric and fashion waste. There are no problems with the fabric itself – Circulose is, indeed, sustainable, durable, vegan and biodegradable – but, the greater company, H&M, is still a leading fast-fashion brand. In keeping up with what the New York Times calls “a particularly consumptive era,” H&M continuously produces cheap, synthetic garments following ever-changing trends. Critics say the amount of waste H&M produces overshadows their efforts to sell environmentally conscious clothes. As long as H&M is fast-fashion, it does more harm to the environment than good. 

2. Nestlé

Consumer packaged goods company, Nestlé has also had its fair share of greenwashing scandals. The corporation guilty of mass deforestationplastic pollution and forced labor was recently sued for falsely labelling chocolate products as sustainable and farmer-friendly. Other examples of Nestlé greenwashing include over exaggerating ambitions to reduce plastic and using earthy, green-friendly designs on wasteful products. 

3. Volkswagen

When researching greenwashing, Volkswagen’s clean diesel engine scandal is bound to come up. This infamous example concerns the company’s 2015 clean diesel engine that had a mechanism which allowed it to cheat emissions tests. This “defeat” device could detect when it underwent an emissions test and alter its performance to reduce emission levels, effectively making the car seem more environmentally friendly than it was. Volkswagen admitted to adding the feature to more than 11 million vehicles. 

These companies in some environmentally conscious circles, have become the poster children of greenwashing. They provide infamous examples that are often cited in the greenwashing discussion more than other perpetrators. The list of guilty candidates is nearly endless, though. Other greenwashing products include those by Tide (parent company: Procter & Gamble), Windex (parent company: S.C. Johnson), Love Beauty & Planet (parent company: Unilever), Charmin (parent company: Procter & Gamble) and Chiquita, just to name a few. 

How can you avoid it?

Although it’s become harder to tell sustainable and greenwashed products/brands apart from one another, there are steps consumers can take to ensure their spending supports the environment. One step is to check that labels are vetted by reliable sources. FDA and UDA are usually reliable, but for less-known labels, try looking them up on the Ecolabel Index to learn more. 

Typically, the more transparent a company is about where its products come from and how they’re made is a good sign. If it’s difficult to find a product’s ingredients and where they come from, be wary about trusting the labels on it. It’s also good practice to look beyond a product’s marketing claims and into the company’s environmental practices and policies. 

Also, don’t just be skeptical about green-labelled products in the store. It can be easier to find green products online, but sometimes the impact shipping has on the environment outweighs the sustainability of the product itself. When in doubt, buying local green products is usually more environmentally friendly than not. 

Bailey Chenevert is a freelance journalist and guest editorial contributor for Cluey Consumer. As a recent 2020 college graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Bailey supplemented her studies as both a research assistant and a student editor at La Louisiane. Bailey is passionate about impartial reporting on consumerism and the impacts that fashion brands have on our modern world. 

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