The Dangers of Greenwashing

Today we hear lots of buzzwords in advertising like sustainable, eco-friendly, natural, and green. These terms are used to appeal to those who are environmentally conscious. It’s no surprise as more and more consumers choose to support brands that make positive contributions to environmental causes. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products. And sales of sustainably marketed products have grown 2.7 times faster than conventional products. As a result, the allure to market as environmentally responsible is strong. However, a practice called greenwashing is eroding trust in consumers and potentially damaging brand equity. But what is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a brand spends more time and money marketing claims of environmental responsibility than actually implementing business practices to minimize environmental impact. Essentially, making false claims that their company or products are environmentally friendly.

Where did the term “greenwashing” come from? In 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term during a visit to a Beachcomber island resort in response to their “help us save the environment, please reuse the towel” campaign. This was a practice where the hotel placed notices in rooms asking guests to reuse towels to help “save the environment.” Jay took issue with this practice as it had little to do with helping the environment and more to do with the cost savings of washing fewer towels. In addition, during the time of the campaign, the hotel was planning to expand into fragile coral reef habitats. So, while the resort presented itself as environmentally conscious, it was actually environmentally crippling.

The most famous greenwashing campaign was Chevron’s “People Do” campaign. These 1980s TV ads showed Chevron employees protecting bears, butterflies, and sea turtles. However, most of the programs promoted in the campaign were mandatory anyway, and the few programs Chevron initiated on their own were insignificant and extremely inexpensive. The company didn’t put any real money or effort behind these programs, other than what was spent on advertising. And while they were running these ads, they were violating the Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

Over the last 20 years, greenwashing has become less brazen than the Chevron campaign. In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released the first edition of its Green Guides. These guides are designed to help marketers avoid making environmental claims that mislead consumers. The release of these guides contributed to the decrease in blatant greenwashing. Furthermore, consumers today are smart and resourceful. They can research a company’s environmental record and spot greenwashing right away.

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Regardless, greenwashing is still around today. Although, instances of greenwashing tend to be more inadvertent and indirect. A result of overzealous marketers trying to capitalize on the environmental movement. Some marketers take liberties with messaging, using key buzzwords like “eco-friendly” or “green” too liberally. Others use visual imagery of nature or wildlife to represent environmental friendliness, even when their product is not green at all. Companies who engage in these practices should beware as there can be negative consequences to a brand engaging in greenwashing, even if unintentional. The company can come off as unethical and it can tarnish a brand’s reputation. Or the business could face legal issues from the FTC if there are gross violations.

The best way to protect your company from greenwashing is to “walk the walk.” If environmental responsibility is a core element in your business or product, make sure that is built into your brand platform. Having a strong brand platform will ensure that you are consistently delivering on your company’s mission and objectives. Here at Six Degrees, we use three base criteria to evaluate and develop a brand platform:

Relevant – Is your brand meaningful to the target audience.

Different – Is the brand different from the competition.

Credible – Can the brand deliver on its promise.

Credibility is how you avoid greenwashing. Anyone can say they are environmentally responsible, but can your brand show its commitment to creating a positive environmental impact? Begin with a strong brand platform that explicitly states your brand promise and pillars. Then cascade to your organization so all employees can be brand ambassadors. This will lead the way in the environmental programs you initiate and the sustainable endeavors you support. Make sure your marketing materials adhere to your brand promise and pillars through accurate visual representations of those core values. And ensure any environmental claims you make can be backed up with action from your brand.

Greenwashing, even when unintentional, can ruin the credibility of a brand. A brand is a living thing, and it must be continually nurtured. If environmental responsibility is part of your brand, then your marketing materials must be authentic and honest about how your organization is contributing. Remember, consumers are smart. They will know right away if you are truly dedicated to environmental causes, or just paying lip service.



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Melissa Hayden
Melissa has more than a decade of marketing and account management experience, including strategy development, brand development, integrated marketing communications, program management and account service. She has a diverse personal roster of client experience with both B2B and B2C for industries such as grocery, retail, consumer package goods, hospitality and medical device. Melissa holds a bachelor’s degree in law and sociology from American University in Washington, D.C.

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