What is greenwashing, and how can we avoid it?

What is greenwashing, and how can we avoid it?

Greenwashing is a form of misleading marketing where a product or a business is presented as better than it actually is in relation to the impact on the climate, nature, animals and people. 

Greenwashing is usually an undocumented claim to mislead consumers into believing that a company’s products and/or the whole company are environmentally friendly

Greenwashing is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products. Green washers often talk loudly about sustainability without contributing with anything that actually makes the world a better place.

The genuine green products always back up their claims with facts and details.Be aware that many companies highlight the things they are good at and avoid talking about things they are not that good on. This is also greenwashing.


How can I spot greenwashers? Aka how can your business avoid greenwashing?

Think about how the company communicates

A good company is honest and shows how it is following up its claims.

We recommend being very careful about using words and expressions like sustainable, eco-, green, responsible, fair, regenerative and recyclable. If you are using these kinds of words you should always point out and explain what you have done and what you will do. A good company always documents its claims. Third party documentation from a trustworthy source is usually better.

Even though you believe you are better than others, be careful with expressions such as “better for the environment”, “better for nature”, “better for the climate”, better for the destinations and so on. Travel is not environmentally friendly. All travels  have some effect on the climate, environment, nature and people. If you cannot point to specific numbers and results that prove that you are “better”, you should leave it alone.

Greenwashers often publish test results, science reports and surveys on their own sites and channels. This is a sophisticated way of comparing their own business to the good tests, even though the report was not about your company. On the other hand, self-made reports are not a good idea either. 

It is smart to remember that images work in the same way as words. Beautiful and glossy images of clean, pure nature, leaves, sunscreens and windmills in sunset are often used to appear more sustainable. So are pictures of happy clients with “sustainable” effects or happy workers and locals.

Many companies are blogging and talking about the importance of sustainability, ethical trade, responsibility and human dignity, environment and nature, climate actions and so on. If the company has not taken real action itself, it should be really careful about this. A good example is when companies change their logo to pride-colors, hashtag #blacklivesmatters, talk about the importance of equality and female empowerment, leadership and ownership and similar. It is positive, but it is not worth much if that is all you do?

Companies that have a marketing strategy that focus on sustainability, but that continue business as usual are almost always greenwashers. Walk the talk.

Many companies are hiding or avoiding talking about emissions and their own negative impact on nature, climate and invasive impact on people in local destinations. No one is perfect. It is much better to admit that you are a part of the problem. Say it like it is. If you have a clear plan and have set goals on how you will improve it is completely fine to talk about that. There is nothing wrong with saying that you can be better. Most people applaud those who do the best they can.

Action speaks louder than words. Make sure that your company takes action.

Sustainability work that only happens in your channels or in the communications and marketing department is not worth much. 

Be careful about spending a large part of the marketing budget on small measures that do nothing to the significant footprint. When a company is dropping single use plastic and plastic straws it is of course good, but marketing with that is a bit sketchy. It helps little if the remaining 99% is harmful to people, climate and environment. Another example is talking loudly about how sustainable your trip is, when your clients travel half-way around the world. It is not very climate friendly. Is it?

In such a case, there should be concrete plans to change, and the market activities should be implemented in this strategy.

Many companies believe that they can buy a good conscience through buying carbon offsetting, planting trees, supporting clean ups or letting others pick plastic. Businesses that take sustainability seriously work hard to reduce their own emissions and footprint. 

The idea that you can be fixing a problem in one place by buying/supporting something somewhere else is controversial and not very good. Clean the mess in your own home. 

Also be careful to market the business only on sustainability goals it is good at. Think about what is your core business. The most important goals are those that are closest to the core business. 

If a company has a value chain with large environmental emissions or serious violations of workers’ rights elsewhere in the world, it becomes rare if the sustainability work is only about equality here at home. A company is not better than its weakest link. If your sub-contractor doesn’t treat their workers decently your company is not good either. If you target luxury guests that arrive in private jets, you are not climate friendly or sustainable! 

Certifications can be a good start on your journey to become more sustainable. But certifications are often used for greenwashing too, as they only show a small part of the picture. There are many positive sides to certification, the companies are forced to take action and in many programs they are learning on the way. 

Think of certifications like a drivers license. You have learned how to drive, but that doesn’t mean you are a good driver. If you are using certifications and use the established ones, and make sure that these use a third party to issue certificates. (We have a list here).

Use of established certification programs makes it easier for both people and businesses to make the right choices. 

Many companies use their support of charities, foundations, donations and sponsorships to prove that they are working with sustainability. It is good to support a good cause. Be aware that supporting, sponsoring and donations are an easy way that might take away focus on establishing a good culture and efforts in the workplace. It is more difficult and more important that companies establish good habits in their own operations and value chain.

Leave your comment