What Is Greenwashing and What Can You Do about It?

Learn how to spot the red flags of corporate greenwashing and what you can do to make sure your company’s climate actions live up to its promises.

Josie Moore

As you work to help your company meet its climate commitments, such as advocating for climate-safe retirement funds, you may find that your company is not actually doing what it said it would to fight the climate crisis. This is called “greenwashing.'' 

In fact, corporate marketing teams are so good at their jobs that sometimes greenwashing can be difficult to spot, even when it’s right in front of you. But there are ways to help you quickly identify corporate greenwashing so you can then respond to it. 

What Is Greenwashing? 

According to Business News Daily, “when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts,” this is greenwashing. The environmental claims could apply to the company as a whole or to a specific aspect of the company’s practices. 

For example, a company could greenwash its brand as a whole by having a name like Eco Investments LLC when the company actually manages investments in the fossil fuel industry. Or a company could greenwash a specific aspect of its practices by launching a special “Green Investments Portfolio” that includes investments in agribusiness that contributes to global deforestation. 

Essentially, greenwashing is false advertising. If a company is putting more time and resources into marketing its climate commitments than making changes to meet those commitments, it's greenwashing.

How Can You Identify Greenwashing?

Marketing teams work very hard to convince us that a company is doing a lot to address the climate crisis when, in fact, it’s doing very little. Separating truth from fiction can be difficult, but here are some tips to help you spot possible greenwashing. 

  • False claims or vague language. Is a company simply advertising something as “green” or “eco-friendly” without specific details or more information? Are they making a big claim that sounds too good to be true or can’t be backed up with evidence?
  • Images of nature or green buzzwords. Does a company fill its branding with images of trees, the Earth, or rivers, even though those things have nothing to do with their business? Do they throw around terms like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” with no details about what that means (see above)?
  • Hiding information. Does a company promote its distribution practices as environmentally friendly but stays silent about its manufacturing practices? Is it boasting its use of recycled materials while not mentioning its supply chains? Do they promote one investment plan as climate-safe while also offering several other plans that fund fossil fuels and deforestation?
  • Carbon offsetting. Does a company promote its carbon offsetting while doing nothing to reduce its own facilities’ or supply chain emissions through renewable energy? 
  • Someone else at the helm. Does a company claim to be exploring sustainable energy practices while a board member is also the CEO of an oil company? Do they brand themselves as a small, eco-friendly business, but in fact they are owned by a larger company with unsustainable practices? 
  • Not really recyclable. Does a company say that their products or packaging are recyclable or biodegradable when they’re actually not or when recycling them requires a special process not available to the average consumer? 

If you identify one or more of these warning signs, a company may be engaged in greenwashing. When you see these red flags, dig deeper, do some research, and determine whether this company is trying to deceive consumers. Or, perhaps, they just need to be pushed a little harder (by climate-focused people like you!) to live their values, see opportunities for reaching net zero, and meet their climate commitments. 

How Should You Respond to Greenwashing?

You spotted the telltale signs. You did your research. And you found that a company is engaging in greenwashing. Now what? 

If you are a customer, you can call, email, or post about the company on social media to express your concerns. Let them know you’re a customer and, although you would like to continue to purchase their goods or services, you will only do so if they start taking real actions to make their business truly sustainable. 

If you are an employee, you can work with others at your company to transform greenwashing into actual green practices. A good first step is to build a team of colleagues to address the issue. Together you can articulate how your company is falling short on its promises, what it needs to do immediately to accelerate its climate journey, and what its long-term net-zero plans should include.

When you’re ready, schedule a time to meet with decision-makers within your company to present your case and advocate for more aggressive and focused climate action. And if you happen to be in a position to change business practices to become more sustainable and work toward a net-zero goal, make the changes! This is your chance to be a leader. 

Safeguard Your Company from Greenwashing

You want your company to be trustworthy and put its values into action. This means that your company’s climate commitments need to be meaningful and real. To ensure that your company avoids—or corrects—greenwashing

  • Make your claims about your practices detailed, specific, and easy to understand. For example, instead of saying “green investments,” say, “90% of investments are in renewable energy sources.” 
  • Back up your claims with data. Provide evidence, third-party certifications, and so on. 
  • Make comparisons to like things. If you’re making a comparison to a competitor’s practices or products, actually compare the same practices or products. 
  • Clean up your business practices. If you want to promote your company as green, infuse all levels of your business with green practices. 
  • Be honest and transparent about your sustainability practices, plans, and goals. Let your customers and employees know the details about your current practices and your plans to reach net zero, and then update them on your progress periodically. 
  • Make sure marketing and branding images are not misleading. Don’t use imagery of trees, the Earth, or rivers if your products or services have nothing to do with those things or supporting their sustainability. 

Wipe Out Greenwashing with Climate Action at Work

There are many actions companies can take to become more sustainable and move swiftly toward net-zero emissions, including reducing energy consumption, switching to renewable energy, choosing sustainable suppliers, and more. 

While many companies are working toward completing these steps, there are also climate-action “blindspots” that are potentially transformative—actions that, if taken by a critical mass of companies, could help us reach a tipping point in our fight against the climate crisis. A movement of climate-safe employee retirement funds and corporate investing could produce a seismic shift toward the clean-energy economy we need to sustain a livable planet.

If you want your company to be doing more to put its words into action on climate, talk to your colleagues, build a team, and advocate for meaningful changes that will not only help our planet, but they will also make your company a climate leader.

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