Twelve Examples of Greenwashing
Updated: Aug 14
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the name given to the process of companies putting more financial efforts into the marketing of looking green, rather than actually being green. This then makes it simply an unsupported claims.
Why is greenwashing a problem?
The demand for products and services to be environmentally responsible is rapidly growing. Companies want to cash in on this demand, and not all companies have great morals.
More demand for sustainable products often helps companies to charge more for their products. However, some companies just claim they help the environment when they do not actually take sustainable actions - this leads to customers being overcharged. Not only this, it also seriously damages the reputations of companies who are genuine in their environmental responsibilities as customers find it difficult to know which claims are genuine or which companies to trust.
This has become such a large and significant problem that the UK government has recently started releasing legal guidance on how UK companies can make environmental claims to combat greenwashing.
Companies misleading or outright lying about their environmental responsibility may lead to the company making more money in the short term from them tricking investors and consumers - people that are genuinely seeking environmentally-friendly companies or products - but in the long term it causes significant damage to the Earth and to the sustainability movement.
How do companies greenwash?
The term Greenwashing originated in the 1960’s when the hotel industry devised one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing. They placed notices in hotel rooms asking guests to reuse their towels to ‘save the environment’. While this can be a sustainable action when done responsibly, the hotels actually just enjoyed the benefit of lower laundry costs and higher profits.
There are several ways in which Greenwashing can be done. Products are often greenwashed through a process of renaming, rebranding, or repackaging them. Greenwashed products might wrongly convey the idea that they're more natural, wholesome, or free of chemicals than competing brands. Many terms that sound sustainable have no legal protection and can be claimed by almost anybody for anything.
Below are some important “buzzwords” for you to look out for which could indicate that a product or service is being greenwashed. Example terms include:
Biodegradable does not always mean better for the environment. Biodegradable just means that the product can decompose over time; but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be quick or clean. These products may not have been made in a sustainable way and if biodegradable products end up in landfill, they will still give off greenhouse gases. Sometimes, gases that are much worse than other products. They also cause problems if they get into the recycling. To assess the impact of a product, we need to consider its whole life cycle – so how was the biodegradable product made, and how were the materials for it sourced?
2. Environmentally Friendly
This is one of the most damaging greenwashing terms. The term ‘environmentally friendly’ has almost no legal basis and can be claimed for even the weakest reasons. Companies that want to claim to be environmental but do little about it often use this term as it is hard to pinpoint - environmentally friendly compared to what? Everything we consume has some kind of environmental impact. Anyone selling something with this claim should be able to clearly explain how it’s better for the environment than the alternative.
3. Locally grown/organic/sustainably sourced
There can be many social and environmental benefits to locally-grown food. It often involves fewer food miles, for example. But locally grown doesn’t necessarily mean better for the environment. It is possible to be locally grown and also produced in a way that harms the land and spews out greenhouse gases, such as growing non-native species in environments that are wildly unsuitable. A good example of this is growing pineapples in the UK. It might be local, but the energy needed to keep those pineapples warm enough all year far outweighs the carbon footprint of transporting the pineapples from countries with the correct climate.
Environmentally friendly food growers should have clear policies on things like soil conservation, minimising the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, conserving biodiversity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the way the food is produced, not just in the way it is transported.
Examples of Greenwashing
Innocent Drinks was called out this year after adverts for the drinks firm were banned after the advertising regulator ruled they "misled" customers over the firm's environmental impact. The adverts show animated characters encouraging people to "get fixing up the planet" by buying Innocent drinks, while singing songs about recycling and fixing the planet.
The company is owned by Coca Cola, the worst plastic polluter in the world: producing about three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year. This is equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute. In 2019, it was found to be the most polluting brand in a global audit of plastic waste by the charity Break Free From Plastic.
The regulator said it implied buying Innocent drinks "was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact when that was not the case.”
The global coffee capsule market is worth over $10billion and growing fast. But the mountain of discarded capsules remains difficult to recycle. The problem is you typically have to use specialist recycling services instead of local recycling bins.
This year, the Competition Bureau’s investigation concluded that Keurig Canada’s claims regarding the recyclability of its single-use coffee pods are false or misleading in areas where they are not accepted for recycling. The Bureau found that, outside the provinces of British Columbia and Quebec, K-Cup pods are currently not widely accepted in municipal recycling programs.
Because of this, Keurig had to pay a $3 million penalty and donate $800,000 to a Canadian charitable organisation focused on environmental causes, as well as pay an additional $85,000 for the costs of the Bureau’s investigation, before changing its recyclable claims and the packaging of the K-Cup pods.
IKEA is the largest consumer of wood in the world, and its timber consumption has doubled in the last decade. In 2019, 21 million cubic metres of logs were used to make its products. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch seven times around the Earth. Earthsight has calculated that it currently consumes approximately one tree every second.
An investigation by Earthsight found that IKEA has been making beechwood chairs using illegally sourced wood from the forests of Ukraine’s Carpathian region, an area home to endangered species such as bears, lynxes, wolves, and bison.
Shockingly, the illegal timber was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) (the world’s leading green labelling system for timber). The FSC’s recognisable tree-tick symbol is to be found on millions of wood and paper products around the world, and is meant to give customers a piece of mind in the products which they are buying.
This oversight raises serious questions about the ethics and transparency of the FSC accreditation, which according to Earthsight, is not limited to Ukraine. They describe “rampant illegal logging” across the globe under the watchful eye of the FSC.
The fast fashion industry is notorious for its environmental impact, so a level of greenwashing is to be expected there. But you might be surprised at the sheer amount of greenwash that was revealed in a 2021 report from the Changing Markets Foundation.
They looked at clothing from major high-street fashion brands to check the truthfulness of their sustainability claims and found 60% of claims overall were misleading. That’s bad but H&M were found to be the worst offenders with a shocking 96% of their claims not holding up.
The investigation found that H&M was engaging in greenwashing by using sustainability labels such as "Conscious" and "Conscious Choice" without explaining what the terms mean or providing descriptions of the sustainability benefits of the products. Additionally, ACM pointed out several practices by H&M in which it appears to make sustainability claims about products that may incorrectly give the impression of their sustainability benefits or guaranteeing that a specific product is made with sustainable materials.
Following these findings, H&M committed to donating EUR 500,000 to a non-profit organisation, not affiliated with H&M, that is active in sustainability.
Between 2018 and 2021, Ryanair claimed to be “the greenest, cleanest airline in Europe,” citing a report from 2011. In February 2020, the UK Advertising Standards Authority banned a Ryanair advertising campaign saying it was Europe’s “lowest emissions airline” and concluded that the claims were misleading.
The ads claim that Ryanair has the “lowest carbon emissions of any major airline”, based on CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometre flown, because it has the youngest fleet, highest proportion of seats filled on flights and newest, most fuel-efficient engines.
However, one of the charts Ryanair presented to the Advertising Standards Authority to back up its claims was dated 2011, which the watchdog said was “of little value as substantiation for a comparison made in 2019”. The ASA added: “In addition, some well-known airlines did not appear on the chart, so it was not clear whether they had been measured.”
The ASA banned the ads, ruling that they were misleading because the airline had failed to substantiate its environmental claims.
“The ads must not appear again in their current forms,” the ASA said. “We told Ryanair to ensure that when making environmental claims they held adequate evidence to substantiate them and to ensure that the basis of those claims were made clear.”
6. Quorn Foods Thai Wonder Grains
The UK’s advertising watchdog scrutinised Quorn Foods Thai Wonder Grains advert. In the advert, a woman is eating the Quorn Foods Thai Wonder Grains while at work while the voiceover says “I care about climate change and I love my food. So the new Quorn Thai Wonder Grains is a step in the right direction because it helps us reduce our carbon footprint and that’s got to be good.” Before continuing, “If you care about climate change, take a step in the right direction with the new Quorn Wonder Grains.”
An inquiry by the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the ad was misleading. It also noted that since the product in question was new, it was impossible to determine whether it could reduce Quorn’s carbon footprint.
7. Shell’s Climate Poll on Twitter
A climate poll on Twitter posted by Shell has backfired spectacularly, with the oil company accused of gaslighting the public.
The survey, posted on Tuesday morning, asked: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?”
Greta Thunberg accused the company of “endless greenwash”, while the climate scientist Prof Katharine Hayhoe pointed out Shell’s huge contribution to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is heating the planet.
Eight hours after the poll had launched, the company signed off its event with the following tweet: “Changing the energy system requires everyone to play their part. That’s what today’s #EnergyDebate was about. As for our part, we said last week that Shell will reshape its portfolio of assets and products to meet the cleaner energy needs of its customers in the coming decades.”
Unilever’s cleaning brand Persil is one of the UK’s most popular, with its washing-up liquid and dishwasher tablets used by millions of people each year. With consumer demand placing pressure on companies for environmentally conscious products, it’s not surprising that Unilever has upped its efforts to appear eco-friendly.
This year, they released an advert in which they claimed Persil was “kinder to our planet”, and featured children picking up litter on a beach. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the advert’s claim was unsubstantiated.
Unilever told BBC News it was “disappointed” with the result, saying, “We are committed to making ongoing improvements to all our products to make them more sustainable and will continue to look at how we can share this with our shoppers.”
The ASA banned the advert after it concluded that the basis of the claim “kinder to our planet” had not been made clear.
HSBC ranks 13th for the top banks financing fossil fuels in the UK. And still finances carbon-heavy industries like thermal coal mining. This year, the UK advertising watchdog banned a series of misleading adverts and said any future campaigns must disclose the bank’s contribution to the climate crisis.
The ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) followed dozens of complaints over posters that appeared on high streets and bus stops in the lead-up to the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow last October.
The watchdog said the adverts, which highlighted how the bank had invested $1tn in climate-friendly initiatives such as tree-planting and helping clients hit climate targets, failed to acknowledge HSBC’s own contribution to emissions.
In September 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had a "defeat device" - or software - in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The German car giant has since admitted cheating emissions tests in the US.
This was going on while to the public the company was touting the low-emissions and eco-friendly features of its vehicles in marketing campaigns. In actuality, these engines were emitting up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.
VW’s response to the situation was “We've totally screwed up," stating his company had "broken the trust of our customers and the public". Mr Winterkorn resigned as a direct result of the scandal and was replaced by Matthias Mueller, the former boss of Porsche.”
Nestle has a commitment that by 2025, 100% of their packaging would be reusable or recyclable. But instead of massively reducing the amount of plastic waste they produce, Nestle aims to achieve this predominantly by burning plastic waste–and creating toxins that harm wildlife, people’s health and the environment in the process.
Greenpeace reacted to this by releasing its own statement, in which it said, “Nestlé’s statement on plastic packaging includes more of the same greenwashing baby steps to tackle a crisis it helped to create. It will not actually move the needle toward the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way, and sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world.” In Break Free From Plastic’s 2020 annual report, Nestlé, along with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, were named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row.
In 2019, McDonald's new paper straws - described as "eco-friendly" by the US fast food giant, were found to be non-recyclable. In 2018, it axed plastic straws, even though they were recyclable, in all its UK branches as part of a green drive. But the US fast food giant says the new paper straws are not yet easy to recycle and should be put into general waste.
As customers are becoming increasingly aware of greenwashing and its tactics, hopefully greenwashing will become a thing of the past. As consumers, it is ever important for us to be highly aware of what we are buying into and to question those hopeful environmental claims with requests of seeing the statistics behind those claims.
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