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Simply put, greenwashing, otherwise known as ‘green sheen’, is when an organisation knowingly or unknowingly leads people to believe that it’s doing more for the environment than it actually is. For a lot of businesses wanting to attract eco-conscious customers, it can be tempting to invest in marketing and PR tactics activities that portray their products or brand as sustainable, but without actually doing any of the hard work (and it is hard) that comes with backing up their claim.

The term greenwashing was first coined in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist who said the term came to him when considering a hotel resorts claims of helping to save coral reefs by reusing towels. However, as you can imagine, this is by no means the biggest greenwashing scandal ever to take place.

What is an example of greenwashing?

“Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don't look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you're under.” - Kenny Craig.

The above quote is from Matt Lucas’s hypnotist character, Kenny Craig, from British sitcom Little Britain. The unscrupulous Kenny hypnotises people into doing things for him, such as handing over £50 notes in the street. In a way, this is analogous to greenwashing when performed by businesses and organisations who intentionally use greenwashing tactics, for example “ad bluster” or false claims, to lure customers with a false environmentally friendly impression. 

One famous example of corporate greenwashing is the German car manufacturer Volkswagen's emissions scandal, otherwise known as Dieselgate. Volkswagen installed devices into their line of “clean diesel” cars that allowed them to cheat emissions tests and claim positive environmental performance, when in reality the opposite was true. The scandal was eventually uncovered and Volkswagen were forced to recall millions of cars at great financial and reputational cost.

Volkswagen car

Volkswagen's "Dieselgate" was a huge greenwashing scandal.

Why greenwashing is a problem

Greenwashing is a problem because if a company claims to be sustainable but isn’t, then it helps perpetuate unsustainable practices because customers will think that it's environmentally beneficial, to buy from them. For example, a palm oil company could claim that palm oil farming fosters biodiversity, when really huge swathes of primary and secondary rainforest are destroyed for palm oil plantations. It really is a shame that sometimes companies put so many resources into appearing sustainable when the money could be used to actually become sustainable.

How can you spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing can be hard to gauge. Sometimes even companies themselves aren’t aware they’re doing it. In general, things to look out for are:

  • Transparency across all business areas
  • Are ‘certifications’ real/valid?
  • Counterintuitive values e.g. a single-use bottled water company claiming to be sustainable
  • B-Corp status; a good measure of sustainable commitment.

B Corp slogan 

Not all companies are insidious greenwashers. There are good companies out there who are putting in the work and building sustainable business models. One of our favourites is BrewDog, a craft beer company from Scotland. Recently, BrewDog made a concerted commitment to become carbon neutral and use their influence to promote the environmental movement. As part of this, they also started along their journey to becoming a B Corp. Make sure to watch our #agoodcommunity interview with co-founder and CEO, James Watt, to learn more.

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