What is greenwashing? Meaning explained and how it is used to mislead environmentally conscious audiences

Companies often use pro green advertising to give off the impression it or its product is less harmful to the environment

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With the world’s eyes on COP26, the climate crisis has been brought into sharp focus.

Discussions are ongoing between countries over where we find ourselves and how we can meet targets to reduce greenhouse gases, which harm the environment.

Activists, like Greta Thunberg, are also in Scotland with some encouraging governments to go further than what they are promising to preserve the planet for our and future generations.

Brazil has been accused of ‘greenwashing’ by Amazon forest defenders as ministers claim the country is a "longtime champion of the environmental agenda and an agrifood powerhouse".

So what does the term ‘greenwashing’ mean, how is it used and what advice is there around how to avoid or challenge countries or companies claiming to be eco friendly when that might not be the case...

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term used to describe when a country, company or product is providing misleading information or trying to promote a false impression of its green consciousness.

This can often tap into environmentally conscious audiences who are looking to believe something or use a product because of claims it is less harmful to the environment.

Greenwashing is a play on the term ‘whitewashing’ which is when there is a deliberate attempt to gloss over or conceal unpleasant or incriminating information.

What is green marketing?

Where greenwashing looks to deceive, green marketing is the term used to describe the promotion of genuine eco friendly intentions or products.

Green marketing promotions have legitimate eco friendly benefits.

How has greenwashing been used?

Greenwashing often exaggerates the truth or is a complete fabrication.

Products in the shop might be promoting ‘organic’, ‘recyclable’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘natural’ aspects which with a little investigation work might not prove to be true.

It is a term which originated from the 1960s when some hotels asked guests to reuse their towels to help save the environment, when in turn hotels benefitted from lower laundry costs.

Advice on avoiding greenwashing companies or products

If you are an environmentally conscious consumer then there are ways to make sure what you are buying is as green as the promotional claims.

The online guide One Green Planet lists five tips on making conscious choices that help people, animals and the planet and helps you cut through company greenwashing.

  • Be mindful of vague buzzwords: look for evidence which proves the product is backing up its claims, such as the recycling print
  • Idyllic imagery: often companies will use pictures of forests or mountains to give off the impression it is closely aligned to nature
  • Hidden parent company: large conglomerates sometimes create smaller brands to push an environmentally friendly agenda disguised as greenwashing
  • Lack of transparency: often companies that are more eco friendly are proud of what they do and will devote sections of their website to its company values
  • Counter-intuitive values: be mindful of claims that are contrary to common sense expectations, such as water companies claiming to be natural but packaging the water in plastic bottles - a material which can take 450 years to break down in the environment

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