Greenwashing’s Latest Innovations

Austin Whitman
June 5, 2023
Climate-themed greenwashing has risen in recent years, tracking an increase in consumer preference for products that are less damaging to the climate. In this blog, we share common examples of greenwashed claims and how to think about environmental marketing moving forward.

Nearly a quarter century ago, oil and gas major BP announced to the world that its initials now stood for beyond petroleum. Then, over the next decade, it poured billions of dollars into continued oil and gas operations, and had a dismal track record of investment “beyond petroleum”—and safety. 

BP quietly dropped the branding around 2013. The campaign remains one of the most brazen examples of a company making an environmental claim that oversells the significance of its action. It was, in hindsight, a perfect template for how to greenwash.

Greenwashing was defined in the 1980s as the act of a company spending more on environmental marketing than it spends on environmental actions.

In practice, the term has become synonymous with false advertising, deception, and—at its worst—corporate greed at the expense of the environment. Greenwashing is when a company makes misleading claims about its positive environmental impact or the sustainability of its products and services to win support from customers, employees, shareholders, and the public. And it has become increasingly common—enough so that it is the subject of many articles, lawsuits, and now regulatory actions.

Governments worldwide are making efforts to cut down on greenwashing claims. This year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is working on updates to its anti-greenwashing guide, the Green Guides. In Europe, a proposed law known as the Green Claims Directive is under consideration to tighten rules around environmental marketing.

Greenwashing may involve a wide range of marketing claims, from overstating the content of recycled material to overplaying the role of “all-natural” ingredients in a product. Climate-themed greenwashing has risen in recent years, tracking an increase in overall consumer preference for products that are less damaging to the climate.

Here are some common examples of overblown climate claims:

Bespoke climate certifications, with options to suit every taste and budget.

Example: We're entirely certified carbon neutral!* 
* for the shipping emissions from every product

Claims about work-in-progress that gives the illusion of significant impact.

Example: We're on the road to buying renewable energy!

Big claims about milestones decades into the future (when today’s business leaders will be long gone) that lack specifics on investment.

Example: Every ‘net-zero by 2050’ campaign ever.

Initiatives solely geared toward the impacts of products or services that don’t exist yet.

Example: Our new shirt line, launching this Fall, will be entirely carbon neutral!

Cost-cutting initiatives with loudly touted, yet trivial environmental outcomes.

Example: We've gone climate friendly, and so can you! Opt into paperless billing.

As the FTC Green Guides, EU Green Claims Directive, and other regulatory frameworks evolve, it will be important to make sure that they guard against these and other forms of climate greenwashing. At the same time, regulators need to make sure that "greenhushing" - a decision to say less, or say nothing at all - doesn't eclipse greenwashing and lead companies to do less. Already, businesses do appear to be responding to the threat of regulation, or the fear of litigation, by taking refuge in vague claims. “Carbon neutral” is being replaced by less specific phrases such as “climate friendly” or “supporting climate action,” presumably because these claims are hard to assess - and thus hard to refute.

This new innovation in greenwashing surely represents a step backward, since it will make it more difficult, not less, to distinguish one company’s actions from the next, and separate the actors from the pledgers. Greenwashing regulations must create the right incentive for strong claims over those that are undefinable - but, ironically, unassailable. 

Climate claims should be easy for a consumer to understand. 

The actions behind any form of environmental marketing should be traceable to verified numbers, framed using familiar terminology, and presented in the context of the entire entity that makes the claim. People should be able to clearly distinguish what has been done from what is being planned for the future.

Above all else, it should be easy to understand how much money has been mobilized for the actions behind the claim. With cutting carbon emissions, as with everything else, money talks ... and you know the rest of the saying.

To view Climate Neutral’s comments to the FTC, visit our new microsite, climatelabel.org.

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About the Author

Austin Whitman
CEO, Change Climate

Austin Whitman is the CEO of The Change Climate Project. He started working on climate and clean energy 19 years ago and believes companies and individuals can make a huge difference for the climate if they're just shown how. When he's not engrossed in organization-building, he's probably with his family or being an amateur at one of his many hobbies.

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