What Is Greenwashing?

Mariam Abu HusseinLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 23rd November 2023

Greenwashing is a term that has increasingly entered the everyday world since the climate change catastrophe became a focus for governments, pressure groups and citizens around the world.


In this article, we'll look at what greenwashing means and why it matters, especially for businesses in the UK who are keen to do right by the planet and steer clear of greenwashing pitfalls.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company engages in activities or behaviours that give the false impression of substantial environmental commitment.

Alternatively, greenwashing might be used by a company to make its products look eco-friendly while diverting attention from its not-so-green practices.

Why is greenwashing bad?

We probably don't need to spell this out but greenwashing is essentially false advertising.

When a company engages in greenwashing, it's not just a little white lie they're telling. It's a cynical attempt to take advantage of the growing demand for ethical and environmentally friendly products.

What's more, if and when the truth comes out about a companies greenwashing practices, it can damage their reputation with customers, especially if they've paid more for a product under the impression that it's good for the planet.

Greenpeace summarises why greenwashing is so damaging:

Greenwashing lets companies keep business as usual, while pretending they’re doing better. So, all the planet-polluting, habitat-harming things they do carry on. And there may be very few attempts to change this. This locks in a harmful social and economic system that takes more from the Earth than we can sustain.

Origins of greenwashing

Greenwashing as a term has been around a lot longer than it has been in the public consciousness and being included in dictionaries as prestigious as the Cambridge dictionary.

In a 1986 essay criticising the hotel industry’s ‘save the towel’ movement, Jay Westerveld invented the term greenwashing as a play on whitewashing, a common term at the time.

He accused hotels of being disingenuous when asking customers to reuse towels to protect the environment, when what they were really doing was looking after their own interests by reducing their laundry bills.

Back then, without the internet's eagle eye, such moves were likely to slip under the radar. But fast forward to today, and companies find it much harder to escape scrutiny and being called out for greenwashing tricks.

For example, in October 2021 a documentary called Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant aired, where the comedian accused the oil company Shell plc for greenwashing in their advert about their plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Experts claimed that the advert misleadingly focused on Shell plc's use of renewable energy, despite it only making up 5% of their operations.

Greenwashing examples

Let’s explore some further examples of greenwashing you may be familiar with.

McDonald’s flimsy paper straws

Like many fast food and convenience food outlets McDonald’s has done away with plastic straws in favour of paper alternatives. However, their reasoning for doing so might be as flimsy as some paper straws.

Claiming the move was part of a wider green initiative, the fast food giant was later criticised because the straws proved too thick to recycle.

McDonald's were also accused of greenwashing when they announced their plans to cut global greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, with senior food campaigner's claiming that it was "another stunt in a long line of greenwashing trends from McDonalds."

Ryanair advert banned

A 2020 Ryanair advert was banned by the Advertising standards Agency (ASA) over greenwashing concerns. The advert claimed that the Irish airline had: “the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline”. 

The ASA said Ryanair’s claims could not be backed up. The main issue was that data was used stretching back as far as 2011, however the advert was released in 2019, meaning that the data wasn’t representative of the current day. That the advert was banned was important as it prevented Ryanair from presenting their brand as environmentally friendly, which might have given them an unfair advantage with environmentally conscious consumers looking to make the right choice.

Barclays’ sponsorship of Wimbledon

Brandalism – a portmanteau of brand and vandalism - an activist group took over advertising slots in Wimbledon, South London to protest the world-famous tennis championship’s sponsorship arrangement with Barclays

On the tournament’s ‘Environment Day’ the protestors replaced Barclays’ Wimbledon ads with satirical parody adverts commenting that “Barclays sponsors Wimbledon and Fossil Fuels”. The satire represents Barclays shaking hands with death dressed as a Shell executive.

One of Barclays original ads announcing the sponsorship states that: “Barclays and Wimbledon go together like strawberries and cream”, which might unwittingly have damaged the tennis tournament more than they realised when they approved the ad copy.

The collective decided on this protest action as Barclays is the one of the biggest sponsors of fossil fuel firms in the world and the largest contributor to the industry amongst European banks. 

Consequences of greenwashing

Greenwashing can damage a brand in a number of ways including negative press, protesting and boycotts ─ all of which can impact a businesses’ bottom line.

But that’s disregarding the environment, greenwashing can lead to devastating consequences for the planet:

  • Waste generation

  • Pollution increase

  • Deforestation

  • Biodiversity destruction

In terms of negative impacts on a business greenwashing can:

  • Impact brand image – reducing your brand to negative associations, which can lead to consumers to feel they have been lied to, resulting in lost trust and brand loyalty. 

  • Reduced sales – damage to brand image and a loss of reputation can lead to declining sales, which go to the very heart of business success

  • Increased churn – meaning customers moving from your product or service to a competitor that’s more environmentally friendly

  • Fines and regulator oversight – claims of greenwashing could lead to regulators building a case against your company and imparting hefty fines on your business.

How to avoid greenwashing

The good news is that although avoiding greenwashing might be a tough line to toe, it can be prevented with a few simple processes.

Ensure claims are backed up with data

Any claims made as to the environmental impacts of your products or services needs to be substantiated by clear and unambiguous evidence. For example, if a supermarket is limiting the use of plastic in its packaging, it needs to be clear to what extent this can be recycled at a regular plant.

Make sure any data referenced in advertising can be read in full detail on your website.

Make fair comparisons

You must compare the same type of product to your competitors when claiming superior environmental sustainability. Take a dishwasher tablet claiming to be more effective on a lower temperature wash than its competitors, however the detergent company is comparing its new product against a competitor’s product that isn’t designed to work at lower temperature washes.

Embrace sustainability

If you really want to avoid greenwashing, you’ll want to weave sustainability into your business model. Make it part of your targets and train and educate staff on what greenwashing is and how to avoid it in marketing and customer communication.

Greenwashing vs green marketing

There is nothing wrong with green marketing when it is done correctly and avoids the pitfalls of greenwashing. 

Green marketing is when a company sells its products by making a virtue of its genuine sustainability practices and environmental benefits. To work it must be honest, transparent and practical. 

Products and services should follow these principles:

  • Be manufactured following sustainable practices

  • Free of chemical toxins and ozone depleting materials

  • Be produced ethically, avoiding poor working conditions, slave labour and child labour

  • Be made from sustainable or recyclable materials

  • Avoid packaging that cannot be recycled or is tough to recycle

  • Not be disposable, e.g. fast fashion, mobile phones, white goods

  • Not impact biodiversity or protected areas such as rainforests or other wildlife habitats.

Greenwashing and the law

While there is no legal definition of greenwashing in the UK, companies have to follow certain regulations when it comes to making environmental claims to consumers such as making misleading statements that are likely to influence a consumers' purchasing decision.

Broadly, environmental claims must:

  • Be truthful and accurate;

  • Be clear and unambigious;

  • Not omit or hide important information;

  • Be substantiated (i.e. backed up by the numbers);

  • Take into account the product or service's full life cycle, not just parts of it;

  • Make sure comparisons are fair and meaningful.

The importance of transparency in corporate social responsibility

Without transparency your customers, stakeholders and the wider public won’t trust your business. This can lead to a damaged brand image, fines, litigation and ultimately a reduced sales and plunging profits. 

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