Greenwashing Explained & Culprits Exposed

We get asked “What is greenwashing?” frequently at Whole People HQ.

Going green can be very challenging when you realize that many companies aren’t entirely honest about their green achievements. Claims should ideally be supported with hard data such as the amount of greenhouse gas emissions made or the exact ratio of renewable energy to fossil fuels, etc.

Sadly, misleading environmental claims are all too common. These have almost no environmental impact or positive aspects for climate change.

In fact, this is common practice and many companies engage in an activity known as greenwashing.

Greenwashing is when a company makes either an exaggerated or unsubstantiated claim to sound green in order to mislead ethical consumers into purchasing their products on the belief that they are more environmentally friendly than they are.

So how do we sort the sustainable practices from “green marketing” exercises?

Where Did Greenwashing Come From?

In the 1960s a hotel literally worked out how to “green wash”.

They began placing cards in their guest rooms asking customers to “reuse towels to save the environment”.

While, of course, this does have some environmental benefits their goal was simply to reduce laundry costs. “Green marketing” was the underlying motive not green initiatives.

Examples Of Greenwashing

Walmart’s Degrading Lies

What Is Greenwashing

Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, is not exactly famous for its ethical behavior.

So it probably won’t come as a huge shock to you that back in 2017, they were caught greenwashing in California.

What was the problem?

Well, Walmart had been selling plastics that were labelled as “compostable” and “biodegradable”. The trouble is that this simply wasn’t true in the way consumers expected it to be.

The truth is that if you leave plastic for long enough, eventually it will biodegrade. That process takes, give or take a year or two, around 1,000 years in a landfill. Walmart’s plastics didn’t degrade any faster.

What Is Greenwashing?

So, while it was technically true they were “biodegradable”, in reality, they were no more degradable than any other kind of plastic waste.

You might think a company such as Walmart with a corporate social responsibility policy would eschew false claims in favor of environmentally beneficial actions such as switching to renewable energy but that’s simply not the case.

Coca-Cola is a brand that most of us associate with high sugar drinks that add inches to our waistlines while gently rotting our teeth out of our heads.

We certainly don’t associate them with environmentally friendly behavior.

Coca-Cola Life Was Dead On Arrival

However, given the market for green stuff – Coca-Cola launched a brand new “Coca-Cola Life” with 35% less sugar, a green can and stevia instead of sugar to keep it sweet.

environmentally friendly coca-cola

The only problem with this new wondrous “healthy” Coke alternative is that removing 10 teaspoons of sugar from a 600 ml bottle, leaves 20 teaspoons of sugar still in there.

They’re not making false claims, exactly, but these are not sustainable business practices – they’re just companies trying to exploit the environmentally conscious.

In short, this product doesn’t make you any healthier and it’s not much better for you and Coca-Cola Life might sound kinder to people but it’s still a high-sugar beverage.

Nothing To See, Volks! Claims Volkswagen

volkswagen greenwashing

Perhaps, the most egregious example of greenwashing in recent history was carried out by Volkswagen.

The American Environmental Protection Agency discovered something shocking in Volkswagen’s car design.

Their diesel engine models had been fitted with what’s known as a “defeat device”.

Essentially, when the cars are tested for their emission levels, the device recognizes the test and runs the engine to produce favorable results – results that are not produced when the engine is running on the roads.

An incredible 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with this device designed to pretend that the Volkswagen cars were non-polluting, when, in fact, they were destroying the environment.

How Can You Avoid Greenwashing?

It’s hard to completely avoid greenwashing because companies are really devious about this, but there are some tips to help:

  • Avoid vague language – “eco-friendly”, for example, means nothing concrete
  • Avoid companies with a poor reputation for environmental friendliness – Coca-Cola, Walmart, Volkswagen? Really?
  • Beware of suggestive imagery – flowers emerging from an oil well don’t change the reality of oil as a pollutant
  • Beware of irrelevant claims – “100% fat free” when full of sugar, for example.
  • Beware of “number 1 in our class” – how many others in the class and are any of them any good?
  • Beware pure lies – there are no eco-friendly cigarettes, not now, not ever.

For more on living a sustainable lifestyle check out our guide here.