In the worlds of fashion, beauty, and lifestyle, saving the planet and leading an eco-friendly life are on-trend. Green is the new black, sustainable is the “it” look, and veganism is in while animal products are out.

With this in mind, loads of corporations, businesses and brands have begun to advertise eco-friendly products and services in an effort to promote their awareness of their industry’s role in climate change. Shoes and couches are being made of faux leather, cars are being branded as “eco-friendly”, and more and more food packaging is becoming recyclable. 

While this is a great step forward, it’s not all good news. Branding something as eco-friendly, sustainable, vegan, or green does not mean that it always is. Greenwashing is a phenomenon that several corporations have participated in, whether knowingly or unknowingly. What is greenwashing? It falls into the space between labelling something as good for the environment, and it actually being good for the environment. 

The way we consider our consumption habits is entirely changing due to the world facing an undoubtable climate crisis. The products we purchase and the services we rely on have almost all had their effect on the environment, so it only makes sense that climate-action-chic is the new generational trend.

Greenwashing can also refer to when companies deflect attention away from the environmental harm they cause or when they cast themselves as allies in the fight for climate justice when, in reality, they are not. A recent analysis of advertising related to the COP26 climate summit found rampant greenwashing by companies on social media platforms.

The phrase “greenwashing” topped headlines in August 2021 when environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, called the fashion industry out for partaking in the phenomenon. In a social media post that accompanied her cover announcement, she said

“Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’” she wrote, “But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

The food industry has also been a pretty large culprit when it comes to greenwashing, with companies such as Nestlé and Lay’s potato chips being accused of carrying out the marketing deception, despite contributing heavily to the global plastic waste problem or being unsustainable in their production process. 

Other industries that have been guilty of greenwashing include the automotive industry like BMW advertising a zero-carbon electric car that was proven to have the option of including a petrol engine, the hospitality industry where hotels eagerly advertising sustainability awards despite the award being for a single slight improvement in operations, and the beauty industry where brands like Tarte Cosmetics and The Body Shop having been accused of the phenomenon. 

What is the Definition of Greenwashing? 

Greenwashing refers to when companies and organisations mislead their consumers or audiences by making them believe that a product, service they provide, or the organisation itself is environmentally friendly or sustainable, when it is not. 

The term was originally coined by environmental activist Jay Westerveld in the mid-1980s, when staying at a hotel he saw a sign that asked guests to reuse towels to help save the environment. Westervelt noted the irony of the sign having witnessed that the hotel had not tried to “save the environment” in any other operations. This led him to believe that the hotel was aiming to save money by not washing towels, and did this by hiding behind the eco-friendly label.

Three Things You Need to Know About It

What Impact is It having? 

The problem with greenwashing is that it is a marketing tool used to drive profit, rather than to take environmental responsibility. With the climate crisis as dire as it is, consumers, especially Gen Z consumers, are more cautious about buying into products or services that do not keep environmental interests in mind. 

They’re also more likely to spend the extra amount of money it takes to make sure that they acquire eco-friendly goods, meaning that if a company increases the price of a product and labels it as sustainable, it could make a lot more money off of it than if it had not been marketed that way. 

It is essentially exploitation as companies prioritize the financial opportunities in appearing environmentally responsible, without actively making the changes necessary to actually be eco-conscious. They do not acknowledge the climate-related impact that their marketing choices can make. 

This is a huge issue as this way of doing business may not decrease the pollution and environmental degradation that an industry has on the planet.

The fashion industry alone, a large perpetrator of greenwashing as Greta Thunberg pointed out, is one of the biggest polluters on the planet producing 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply.

The food industry is no exception. As consumers are leaning more toward sustainability and veganism in food, companies have branded their foods good for the environment in order to portray a socially green image. For instance, UK-based vegan and vegetarian food company, Quorn, was recently called out for greenwashing after the company claimed that its products could help reduce a consumer's carbon footprint, but it did not however provide how consuming their products contributed to carbon footprint reduction. 

How Can I Identify Greenwashing?

Nobody likes to be duped into believing something that is a diversion from the truth, especially when it comes at the cost of damaging the planet. Identifying and calling out greenwashing is important to help bring the phenomenon to an end. Here are a few things you can do: 

Be wary of green buzzwords: Companies and products will claim to be environmentally responsible by using words like “eco-friendly”, “recycled”, “sustainable”, “vegan”, “conscious.” They will use these words without explaining how they have been able to achieve that status. When you see them, do your research to see whether they have provided more information, if they do not, they are likely greenwashing. 

Research the company: While some products and services will be advertised as, or actually be environmentally conscious, its host company may not be — think buying a vegan leather belt from a jeans manufacturer that actively pollutes rivers, or purchasing chocolate with recyclable packaging from a company that also sells single-use plastic water bottles. 

Look for verification: If a company is indeed doing as it claims, most times it will be verified by a third party. This means that the company should have received the thumbs up from an environmental auditing organisation.

Greenwashing is not illegal everywhere, outright environmental deception is illegal in the United States and there are currently actions being taken towards implementing a law against greenwashing in Europe. With this in mind, it’s worth researching whether greenwashing is illegal in the country where a product or service is being produced, and following up with an official reporting process to help make sure that the company is being held accountable. 

What Action Can We All Take?

We can all take action by making sure that the items and services that we invest in are doing their part to end the climate crisis, by researching them and calling them out for greenwashing and other contradictory behaviour. 

If you are wary about fast fashion and its impact on the environment, you can try these ways to actively fight the industry by trying out these sustainable tips. It’s also worth following these fast fashion activists and learning from them. 

If you’re concerned about greenwashing in the food industry, here’s a guide to some climate-friendly food swaps of your favourite eats that you can check out. 

You can take action with us to call on big businesses to take responsibility and step up in the fight against climate change by signing this petition. You can also call on world leaders to help end the climate crisis and protect the planet by signing this petition here

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Greenwashing: What Is It and How to Avoid It

By Khanyi Mlaba