Greenwashing harms the planet and can hurt your company’s bottom line. Here’s how to make your sustainability claims accurate. 

People don’t like bad news. 

But the truth is, we’re in danger here on Planet Earth. Extreme weather this summer touched many of us personally. Data show that humans are pushing the limits of our planet’s operating systems

Companies are being asked to act more sustainably – and to be truthful about what they do. That means avoiding “greenwashing,” or false communications about environmental action. 

Greenwashing is a big problem. Almost half of all environmental claims online are exaggerated, false or deceptive, according to a 2021 analysis in the European Union. The analysis criticized “vague and general statements such as ‘conscious,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ [and] ‘sustainable,’ which aimed to [tell] consumers that a product had no negative impact on the environment.” 

You’ve probably heard of greenwashing. But sometimes it’s hard to know where the line is – and whether you’re crossing it. In your company, you might have responsibility for: 

  • Preparing a product marketing campaign 
  • Shaping net zero strategy 
  • Deciding on the company’s affiliations and public positions 

This article gives you concrete guidance on how to avoid greenwashing in all these areas. We define greenwashing and explain why it hurts your company. We also give you a framework you can use to test your company’s claims – and make sure they’re on the right side of the line. 

 Our guidance comes from recently published research that reviewed academic and practical guidance on greenwashing and legal frameworks in the EU, UK, and US. 

We hope it helps you guide your company toward a more truthful presentation of where you stand on environmental issues. 

What Is Greenwashing? 

Greenwashing means creating falsely positive views of an organization’s environmental performance. Simply stated: Organizations say that they are acting more sustainably than they really are. There’s a range from slight exaggeration to full untruth. Greenwashing can be either intentional or unintentional. 

 Traditional greenwashing is centred on products and advertising. You’ve probably seen product labels where the environmental claims are vague or undefined (like “eco-friendly”). Sometimes the environmental claim is made through images (waterfalls) and colors (green). 

Greenwashing goes beyond advertising to other kinds of company action, though. Greenwashing is any action that misleads stakeholders regarding an organization’s environmental performance and benefits. 

Here are some examples of climate-related action that represent greenwashing: 

  • Companies accept climate science but continue to support lobbying groups and politicians who engage in climate denial. Government action on climate thus becomes more difficult. 
  • Companies and governments emphasize unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage  and geoengineering — instead of tested, ready solutions like renewables and energy efficiency. This distracts from the urgency of the climate crisis and slows down action.

Many companies are taking actions that mask a continuation of business as usual. These are a form of greenwashing: promising solutions to our environmental challenges, but knowing that they’re not enough. It’s an image of sustainability – that cracks under further examination. 

This graphic shows different kinds of greenwashing you’re likely to come across

In the last section of this article, we’ll provide a framework you can use to guide your company away from these kinds of greenwashing. 

Why Greenwashing Happens 

Greenwashing happens for several reasons: 

Greenwashing contributes to short-term profitability. Consumers are more aware, so companies have financial incentives to be seen as more environmentally and socially conscious. One study shows 57% of consumers shifting behaviour to being more sustainable during the last few years. That’s a huge market. 

Companies may greenwash unknowingly. Companies may also lack the expertise to know what is genuinely environmentally beneficial – or that expertise may be siloed. Environmental issues are complex, with constantly evolving terms and knowledge. Marketers may not realize what terms like climate-smart, sustainable, compostable or recyclable actually mean in the context of their business. 

Greenwashing can be hard to spot. Consumers don’t have the time or expertise to investigate company claims. For example, tracing a product’s supply chain is difficult even for the experts. Consumers can’t tell how their purchase was produced. This means misrepresentation is relatively easy for companies to get away with. 

Social media spreads misinformation. As we all know, the world of information is chaotic. Social media platforms provide easy tools to market brands and services widely. But brief communications can remove nuance and misinformation spreads easily.  

Greenwashing Costs Companies and the Planet 

Greenwashing is a major obstacle to sustainability. It covers up the continuation of unsustainable practices. It makes it easier for consumers, governments, and even companies to believe that enough action is happening on environmental issues, when it isn’t. The practice results in “false confidence that we are already addressing the causes and treating the symptoms of the climate crisis,” said the Chair of the UK Environmental Agency recently. 

Despite the potential short-term benefits, greenwashing can be problematic for companies as well. Overstating environmental performance puts companies at risk for lawsuits about violating consumer laws. Companies currently face class-action lawsuits for overstating environmental claims. The European Union is building greenwashing into its Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, and individual countries are taking action with severe penalties

The risks of reputational damage can be even greater, though. Employees, consumers, and investors are all looking for companies to behave sustainably. If a company’s “green” image cracks, fallout can be broad. Researcher Ioannis Ioannou and colleagues report that companies that are perceived to be greenwashing suffer, on average, a 1.34% drop in their customer satisfaction score. This is significant, they note: “Companies are intensely competing within a relatively narrow range of ACSI scores, and a 1.34% drop matters.” 

How to Avoid Greenwashing: Our Framework 

Here’s a framework for organizations that want to avoid greenwashing. This was developed by an interdisciplinary group of scientists who are part of a Climate Social Science Network working group on greenwashing. From their review of academic research and legal frameworks, they’ve identified specific types of greenwash and questions that can easily identify them. For more details and guidance, see their full table

Below, we boil it down into ‘Greenwash’ and ‘No Greenwash,’ to let you check your company’s statements and claims in order to identify any danger areas.  

AREA 

GREENWASH 

NO GREENWASH 

 

 

IF CLAIM / ORGANIZATION IS………… 

 

Vagueness. Making broad or poorly defined claims. 

Including words that are unclear or mislead people about impact (e.g. sustainably sourced/eco-friendly/more sustainable/non-toxic/natural) 

Excluding unclear terminology and supporting claims with evidence. Comparisons (“greener,” “friendlier”) also need to be supported with evidence. 

Failing to mention whether claim refers to just a portion/whole of product/packaging 

Clearly communicating whether claim refers to a portion/whole of product/packaging 

Misleading symbols. Visuals exaggerate organization’s greenness. 

Using visuals and symbols that give a false perception of the product/organization 

Using visuals and symbols that accurately represent the scale of environmental benefit. Consider colors, pictures, icons, sounds, and layout. 

Jargon. Information can’t be understood by consumers

Using technical language that consumers cannot understand or verify. 

Refraining from jargon/information that is hard for consumers to understand 

No proof. Supporting information is hard to find. 

Presenting claims without robust, independent, verifiable evidence to justify them 

Verifying claims by easily accessible, robust, independent evidence 

 

Selective disclosure. Focusing on a few points instead of full environmental impact. 

Excluding certain life cycle assessment (LCA) stages/scopes/impacts  

(If you’re on the path to improvement: Be clear about what LCA aspects you’re excluding, and have a plan to include more.) 

Using all LCA stages/cumulative impacts to assess environmental impact 

Failing to disclose relevant social and environmental info 

 

Disclosing all information about social and environmental performance that the claims refer to 

For example: If the company has sponsored a reforestation project, acknowledge environmental limitations or social impacts. 

Not specifying whether and to what extent net zero commitments emphasize emission reduction or rely on offsets 

Setting emission targets to eliminate fossil fuel use (deep decarbonisation), publishing interim targets and not relying on offsets 

Empty claims and policies. Exaggerating achievements. 

Not meeting promised improvement 

Achieving promised improvement 

Spending more on marketing the claim than fulfilling the claim itself. For example: In 2020, the fossil fuel industry spent $10 million on Facebook ads about a “lower-carbon future” 

Spending more on the claim than on marketing it 

Creating ‘green talk’ that overstates the commitments (if they’re not likely to be achieved) or lacks measurable impact 

Not overstating commitments or deflecting attention to minor issues 

 

 

 

Political spin. Pursuing anti-environmental policies, directly or indirectly. 

Boasting of green commitments, while lobbying against environmental laws 

Not lobbying for weakening/blocking environmental laws 

Being affiliated with think tanks, trade associations that spread environmental disinformation 

Not being affiliated with think tanks and other groups that spread environmental disinformation 

Inconsistent organizational practice. Acting environmentally in some arenas but not others. 

Making a claim that conflicts with other organizational products/practices/vision. For example, a product may be the sustainable exception for the company. 

Maintaining environmental focus across the organization.  

Questionable certifications and labels 

 

Not using certifications/labels that are verified by an independent body 

Applying seals/labels only when they are verified by an independent body (for example, the Forest Stewardship Council) 

Failing to be open about the scope of certification and related information about audits, responsibility, etc. 

Clearly defining and communicating the scope of certification and related information about audits, responsibility, etc. 

Using certifications/ labels that reflect low standards: for example, certify activities that are business-as-usual or don’t meet the standards 

Ensuring rigorous enforcement of standards and developing a strong monitoring and evaluation program 

Lies and irrelevancies. Misleading and missing the big picture

Lying (as in the Volkswagen emissions scandal

Avoiding false advertising which contradicts scientific consensus 

Implying that action is voluntary when it’s actually legally required (for example, that a product is free of certain substances) 

Being clear about what action is voluntary vs. required 

Making the public feel ‘green’ about a choice that’s harmful. An example of a personal product would be, vaping (“green” cigarettes). An organizational practice might be intensive industrial agriculture. 

Not touting green attributes of a potentially harmful products or services. 

For a Better Future, We Need Truth – not Greenwashing 

The next years are likely to test us all. Many of us experienced wildfires, drought, or floods this year. These climate extremes are increasing. We need a world where our kids and their kids can access clean water and air and a liveable environment. 

To reach that world, we’re going to need science, and we’re going to need trust. Greenwashing provides a confusing narrative of false facts. It makes it hard for people to make informed decisions. And it undermines their faith in the institutions, including business, that shape our world. 

This framework can help you and your company move toward greater social contribution and engagement. Share your thoughts with us – reach out at info@nbs.net  and tell us about your journey to clearer sustainability claims and action. 

 

About the Authors 

This article was written with contribution from the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN): specifically, the Working Group on greenwashing. 

The specific contributor is Noémi Nemes, a freelance researcher on sustainability. She is lead author of the Working Group’s peer-reviewed 2022 article, “An Integrated Framework to Assess Greenwashing.” The article is available here, and a more detailed version of the framework is available here.  

CSSN is an international network of scholars headquartered at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, launched in October, 2020. Scholars in the network are social scientists producing peer-reviewed research focused on understanding political conflict over climate change. 

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  • Noémi Nemes

    Noémi Nemes is a freelance researcher on sustainability. She is lead author of the article, "An Integrated Framework to Assess Greenwashing," available at https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/8/4431

  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products, and is obsessed with communicating complex things in clear terms (when possible).

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