“Greenwashing”: what is it, how to spot it and 3 practical examples

Elizabeth Smith

Nowadays, environmental issues are topics that we talk about often and a lot, due to the problems related to pollution and the desire to reduce our environmental impact. The greater attention to sustainability is undoubtedly a positive aspect, however in some cases it has generated non-transparent attitudes on the part of companies through the so-called “greenwashing“.

This deceptive practice has the sole purpose of presenting a brand in an ecological way when in reality it is not at all, or less than it seems. To make ethical and environmentally friendly consumer choices, therefore, it is important to understand what greenwashing is and how to recognize it.

What is “greenwashing”: definition and meaning

The meaning of greenwashing is that of a false ecologism, or an attention to environmental sustainability by some companies that is purely apparent. Obviously it can take on many facets, however this meaning is based on the intention of some companies to create a misleading, not completely correct, or completely false environmental reputation.

Why do companies adopt greenwashing practices? The reasons are many, however the main one is of an economic nature. In fact, consumers are increasingly attentive to their impact on the planet, eager to make socially and environmentally responsible purchases. Therefore, it is economically advantageous for a brand to be perceived as ecological and attentive to the environment.

How to recognise greenwashing

To know exactly what “greenwashing” means, just think that it is the junction of two English terms, the word “green” to indicate the symbolic color of ecology and the verb “whitewashing”, which figuratively means to cover, conceal, hide.

This phenomenon is not easy to identify, in fact many companies use borderline marketing strategies, often taking advantage of gaps and difficulties in ascertaining the real correctness of the information conveyed through corporate communication. On the other hand, it is more convenient for companies to invest in appearance, rather than actually engaging in the eco-sustainable transformation of their business.

At the same time, it is necessary to know how companies that use greenwashing act, to avoid falling into misleading communications adopted by some companies.

Among the most common behaviors it is possible to include:

  • advertise the sustainability of a product by enhancing only some particular attributes, to conceal, on the contrary, the environmental impact of the product in its entirety and throughout its entire life cycle;
  • making claims that do not have a scientific basis, are not proven by reliable data and appropriate environmental certifications;
  • communicate generic information about the ecology of products, services and business processes with the sole purpose of confusing consumers;
  • providing information that is not relevant to the actual business of the company, statements that are not useful but serve precisely to create a false perception of sustainability;
  • increase the environmental benefits provided by certain products and services, to mistakenly convince consumers to prefer them to those of competitors;
  • engaging in fraudulent behavior, falsifying certifications, communicating untrue data and using false sources and information in a conscious way.

Some examples of “greenwashing”

All over the world the cases of greenwashing are quite numerous and frequent, with some corporate behaviors that have been sanctioned by the authorities in charge or strongly criticized by consumers and environmental associations.

To better understand how to recognize façade ecology, we have collected some examples of greenwashing of companies, useful for paying attention to communication activities that can deceive and push you to make environmentally wrong consumer choices:

  • Greenwashing Volkswagen: In 2015, the Volkswagen auto group ended up at the center of an international scandal called “Dieselgate”, as it admitted using software to make its diesel engines appear greener than they actually were. The repercussions have been considerable and global, an example of greenwashing which, instead of offering advantages to the company, has caused considerable economic and image damage.
  • Greenwashing Nestlé: the food giant Nestlé has been repeatedly accused of adopting greenwashing practices, bringing its brand closer to environmentalism in an opaque way. Greenpeace accused Nestlé of greenwashing in 2015, judging the company’s strategy to reduce the pollution generated by plastic packaging an act of ecological facade, since the plan would not have foreseen a real commitment to decrease the disposable plastic.
  • Greenwashing Nike: the US sportswear giant was also found guilty of greenwashing, an accusation made following an investigation in Germany carried out by Flip, Die Zeit and NDR. While Nike claimed that the products purchased online and returned in perfect condition were returned to the shelves, the journalists discovered through the use of GPS trackers that in reality the returned shoes were disposed in recycling plants, even though they were impeccable, new and unworn products.

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