An In-Depth Look At Greenwashing… And Its Consequences

Marina Vassilopoulos writes for UKShopfront

All brands use marketing tactics to promote and sell their products or services to the general public. The drive towards creative and memorable marketing has been particularly evident since the invention of the TV and internet, when advertising became unavoidable. 

The introduction of easily accessible and widespread marketing has been instrumental in the creation of globally recognised brands. Brands such as Apple, Coca-Cola and popular car manufacturers have created adverts that resonate with individuals, appealing to the human psyche using clever tactics. Unfortunately, some large brands have resorted to false advertising in the narrative of their adverts, using tricks such as failure to disclose, mislabelling and even greenwashing to attract new consumer bases. 

While a relatively modern term, coined in 1986, many may not have heard of the term ‘greenwashing’ until recently. But, as global warming continues amidst an energy crisis, the terminology has never been more important to understand – and avoid. 

There has been a marked rise in globally recognised brands using greenwashing tactics to lure in new customers. For example, world-recognised energy companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon have had their greenwashing and ‘deceptive’ climate tactics criticised. More recently, popular brands, including H&M and PrettyLittleThing have introduced greenwashing into their marketing tactics, suggesting that people have become increasingly vulnerable to the marketing ploy. 

UKShopfront has provided several expert comments on what greenwashing is, what the consequences are, examples of the term and how companies can pursue truly sustainable ‘green’ policies. 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing was coined in 1986 by an environmentalist named Jay Westerveld. The terminology refers to the false advertising of green or sustainable services or products. Or, in simpler words – making misleading, false, or exaggerated claims of sustainability when promoting your brand or business. Greenwashing has been utilised successfully, for years, misleading consumers into believing brands are benefiting the environment. 

One of the first examples of greenwashing occurred in the mid-80s. An oil company, Chevron, created a collection of television and print ads dedicated to highlighting the business’ dedication to environmentalism. The series was titled ‘People Do’ and centred around staff protecting animals such as bears, butterflies and sea turtles. 

While initially popular, the ads became infamous when it was revealed that Chevron was in violation of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and knowingly spilling oil into wildlife refuges. Similarly, in 1991, a chemical company called DuPont advertised new, double-hulled oil tankers via advertisements featuring happy sealife. Set to Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ and painting the business as dedicated to the care of marine life, it was later revealed that DuPont was the largest corporate polluter in the USA. 

The Rise of Greenwashing

Greenwashing has, unfortunately, become more popular as global warming continues, and is increasingly utilised as a reactive term to attract new, eco-conscious customers or clients. This has become particularly evident following the emergence of Greta Thunberg as a public figure in 2018. Inspiring over one million students worldwide to partake in school climate strikes, the eco-warrior inspired younger generations with her speeches. A particularly poignant speech to the UN in September 2019 witnessed Thunberg state to world leaders that “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”, with millions of young, environmentally-conscious individuals resonating with her statement. 

As a result of this new, eco-conscious generation, companies have had to adapt to trends, introducing greenwashing to their repertoire to ensure younger age groups foster loyalty.

An In-Depth Look At Greenwashing: A typical tourist destination among green, rolling hills.
An In-Depth Look At Greenwashing: A typical tourist destination among green, rolling hills.

The Legal Consequences of Greenwashing

False, misleading, overstated, or unsubstantiated environmental advertising is largely prohibited. If the public begins scrutinising your business, it is likely that investigative bodies could get involved, therefore leading to hefty fines that could cause harm to your business, or even being sued.  

While there is currently no specific legislation in the UK regarding greenwashing, the tactic can still be considered a criminal offence. As of September 2022, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) introduced a “Greens Claims Code”, allowing the body to conduct full reviews of, and take action against, misleading green claims. 

The Green Claims Code itself explores six principles, comprising the following:

  1. Be truthful and accurate
  2. Be clear and unambiguous
  3. Do not hide or omit important information that may prevent your consumer from making an informed decision
  4. Any products you compare should be intended for the same purpose and/or meet the same needs
  5. Consider the total impact of a product or service from beginning through to end
  6. Claims should be substantiated with robust, credible and up to date evidence (transparency)

As such, the first consequence of greenwashing could be legal implications, whether you are subject to an investigation or sued by one of your consumers. In addition, many green businesses often form partnerships, whether with fellow sustainable-minded brands or with charities with an environmental focus. If your business is revealed to have been misleading fellow brands, your identity could be associated with risk, eradicating work and removing your platform. 

However, these are of little consequence in comparison to the damage caused by being accused of misleadingly branding your company as green and/or sustainable by your consumer base.

Other Repercussions of Greenwashing

While some brands may inadvertently greenwash, with naivety in regards to the negative effects of false advertising, other brands knowingly greenwash, aware that their chosen transparency levels protect them. 

Most importantly, you should be aware that being accused of greenwashing can immediately undermine your brand image to eradicate any loyalty your users might have. If your consumer feels that they have been lied to, they are likely to shun your business and additionally advise friends and family to avoid your products, which can lead to widespread disapproval.

In the event that your brand is undermined when accused of greenwashing, it is likely that you will suffer a significant financial loss. From the cost of campaigns through to the cost of actively creating products that are intended to have a green impact, the boycotting of either a brand or specific product created could lead to your business losing significant custom. In increasingly difficult times during the cost of living, this could be devastating for businesses that have built their reputation around a singular product. 

Beyond harming your business, however, one of the most important consequences of greenwashing is the adverse impact on the environment: If all businesses that promoted themselves as green failed to take committal actions, the environment would suffer. Individuals could additionally feel encouraged to select products that are less sustainable, causing further harm.

Examples of Greenwashing

Greenwashing has featured in many, if not most, industries, including the automotive sector, fashion, food and drink, aerospace, retail and more – the list goes on. 

Even some of the most popular household brands have previously been accused of greenwashing tactics, including Ikea, Quorn, Shell and Ryanair. From false low-emissions claims to illegal logging and unverifiable carbon-footprint statements, these brands have demonstrated there are many ways in which a company can greenwash their consumers. 

In everyday life, greenwashing is also rife on the high street. An excellent, modern example is brands such as H&M and Primark promoting ‘conscious’ ranges. While these lines may be green or use sustainable methods, they comprise a tiny percentage of products sold, therefore luring in customers to purchase other items by using ‘token’ items and false pretences.

Both H&M and Primark have previously faced allegations of unsuitable working conditions for staff. From Asian H&M staff regularly subjected to abuse to cries for help discovered in Primark clothing, it is evident that while these brands have created ranges that are eco-conscious, the focus should be redeveloping the entire brand, rather than a miniscule number of products. 

How to Promote Green Marketing – Without Greenwashing

While there are many methods of pursuing green marketing, there is only one vital component: if you are claiming to be sustainable, live up to your statements! 

Using verified facts and figures in your marketing campaigns to prove you are making environmentally friendly and sustainable moves will not only paint your business in a beneficial light, but positively impact the world. 

Another great way to promote green marketing is by continually striving to develop and boost your sustainability to be business-wide. All credible green strategies should be implemented across each area of your company, rather than specific areas. While this is difficult, your consumers will recognise the effort taken and become more likely to trust your ethos. Examples of doing so include:

  1. Becoming energy efficient
  2. Offering your staff environmentally-friendly transport options
  3. Conserving water
  4. Utilising sustainable packaging (particularly for eCommerce businesses)
  5. Consistently planning and introducing new green tactics

If you need an example of a business succeeding at green marketing, look no further than the clothing brand Patagonia. As of September 2022, the previous owner, Yvon Chouinard forfeited ownership, with all profits dedicated to fighting climate change. This incredible move, while drastic, was not driven by profit, but a commitment to improving the environment, both for ourselves and for the future generations. 

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