The term “greenwashing” was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 at a time when most consumers received their news from television, radio, and print media. Some companies took advantage of limited public access to information by portraying themselves as environmental stewards – even when their actions proved otherwise. Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice where a company makes unsubstantiated claims about an environmentally-friendly product or service.
One such company was Chevron, which produced a series of television and print advertisements in an attempt to convince the public of its green credentials. Various ad campaigns depicted Chevron employees appearing to protect bears, sea turtles, and butterflies, among many other animals. The commercials had their desired effect, with the company winning an Effie advertising award in 1990.
Later, Chevron’s dubious claims were made the subject of a Harvard Business School study. The study became notorious among scholars and environmentalists alike, who proclaimed the company to be the gold standard of greenwashing.
Greenwashing is the corporate practice of making sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record. Companies use greenwashing techniques when promoting their products to appeal to the environmentally-conscious consumer, with buzzwords such as “sustainable”, “ecofriendly”, and “natural” frequently cited.
The six sins of greenwashing
In an earlier 2007 study, environmental firm TerraChoice examined thousands of products from six category-leading big box stores.
The study, which aimed to describe, understand, and quantify the growth of greenwashing, found there were six common greenwashing patterns (or sins):
Where a company suggests a product is green based on a single environmental attribute while ignoring other, more important issues. For example, paper towel and copy paper is promoted as being made from recycled or sustainable timber with no mention made of manufacturing impacts such as air or water pollution.
Where a claim is made that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible information. Household lights and lamps are promoted as energy efficient without any real evidence backed by hard data. Shampoos and other personal care products also claimed they were not tested on animals with little supporting evidence.
These are claims that are so poorly defined that their meaning is likely to be misconstrued by consumers. Companies that claim their products are “chemical-free” are misleading because chemicals are found in everything from plants and animals to water. Similarly, “non-toxic” claims are vague because every substance is toxic in the correct dosage.
Irrelevant claims may be truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful to consumers seeking green products. Products that promote themselves as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) free are irrelevant since their use has been banned for decades.
Lesser of two evils
These are “green” or “organic” products that may hold true within their category but that risk distracting the consumer from the more significant impacts of the category as a whole. Organic tobacco is touted as a green alternative to normal tobacco, but it still poses the same health risks for the smoker.
As the name suggests, these claims are simply false. Less than 1% of the products in the study displayed this pattern. Nevertheless, a dishwasher detergent purporting to be packaged in 100% recycled paper was made from plastic. Several shampoo products also claimed to be organic, but the researchers did not find evidence of any such certification.
- Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice where a company makes unsubstantiated claims about an environmentally-friendly product or service. The phrase itself was coined in 1986 around the time oil company Chevron was making false claims about their environmental credentials.
- There may be some degree of truth in a greenwashing campaign, though the intent of the company is always to mislead consumers for financial gain.
- Greenwashing was discovered to occur across six common patterns, or sins. These include hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, the lesser of two evils, and fibbing.
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