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Greenwashing: The Story of "Green Products" That Aren't Actually Green

In the midst of the ever-growing buzz around the term 'greenwashing', here to learn more about what it means.

A half green-painted hand holding leaves
Greenwashing is a tactic that companies use to ‘appear’ more sustainable than they actually are

Source: Alena Koval [11]

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In an increasingly environmentally-conscious society, it is not surprising to see a growing demand for sustainable products or brands. As reported by McKinsey, Gen Z consumers, or people born from 1995 to 2010, are more likely to purchase products from companies they consider as ethical [1].

While this can stimulate market-based green product innovation, there’s been an increasing concern of companies capitalizing this trend to create an impression that they are doing more to protect the environment than they really are, a phenomenon widely-known as greenwashing [2].

Greenwashing is everywhere

Interestingly, the term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist, where he claimed the towel reuse campaign in the hotel industry was nothing but a cost-saving measure [3].

Three decades have passed since its first introduction, yet the greenwashing has only gotten more pervasive. Its forms, however, exist on many levels, from products labeled ‘all natural’ or ‘sustainable’ with pictures of beautiful mountains stamped on their packages to outright lying by simply making false environmental claims [4].

Board game spells out 'organic'
Many products are claimed as 'organic' without any sort of certification

Source: Fuzzy Rescue [12]

The Six Sins of Greenwashing

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing in 2007 popularized a classification of the many ways companies participate in greenwashing which go by the catchy name ‘Six Sins of Greenwashing[5]. In decreasing order of prominence, the following are the six most frequent greenwashing patterns.

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off

Many products that are advertised as environmentally-friendly sometimes have hidden environmental costs, which can mislead consumers. The towel reuse in the hotel industry is a classic example since the water and energy saved by reusing towels is nowhere near to the magnitude of waste generated by the industry [6].

Sin of No Proof

Environmental claims need to be backed by facts, or credible and independent third-party certification, but this is often not the case. Body care products that are labeled with ‘cruelty-free’ without any sort of certification are a typical example.


Sin of Vagueness

Many terms are vaguely defined and often misunderstood by consumers. For instance, we frequently see products promoted as ‘chemical-free’ while this is very rare in reality.

Sin of Irrelevance

This is when companies claim to avoid using a material that is already illegal or non-standard. The most recurring example of this is CFC-free products. Given its role in ozone depletion, CFC has been legally banned since 2008 in Indonesia, but some companies still advertise their products as CFC-free [7]. While this may seem harmless, it creates the impression that the product and the brand is more environmentally-friendly than it really is [8].

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

Some companies will develop a product that is slightly more sustainable and market it as “green”, ignoring that the base product is still really harmful. ‘Organic cigarettes’ are a good example [9]. At a glance, organic tobacco may sound like a good choice for smokers, but wouldn't it be better if the consumers were discouraged from smoking from the first place?

Sin of Fibbing

Despite being the least common pattern, this talks about straight lying. The most prominent example would be The Volkswagen emissions scandal in which the German car giant was discovered to have installed a device to make it seem their cars emit lower emissions [10].


There's still hope in green marketing

A screen of a tablet reads out as 'online marketing'
The increase in demands for green products propels market-based green product innovation

Source: Dominika Roseclay [13]

Although greenwashing can potentially make us wary and skeptical about green marketing, we should never lose hope. We can help fight greenwashing by educating ourselves and staying well-informed so that we can always smartly avoid greenwashing products.


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[3] Becker-Olsen, K., & Potucek, S. (2013). Greenwashing. In S. O. Idowu, N. Capaldi, L. Zu, & A. D. Gupta (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility (pp. 1318–1323). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.



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