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  • Writer's pictureEmily Lombardo

What is greenwashing?

“Diesel has really cleaned up its act,” was the now infamous tagline. Volkswagen was known for its push towards diesel cars, claiming that they were better for the environment; emitting lower emissions than petrol-powered vehicles. The company poured millions of dollars into a successful ad campaign advertising the benefits of their diesel-fueled cars. But that all came crashing down in 2014 when it was discovered that Volkswagen had been fitting 482,000 cars since 2009 with software designed to cheat emissions tests in the U.S.

A history of greenwashing

While this is a more extreme example, it remains a classic case of “greenwashing.” A term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 while he was examining hotel practices, greenwashing is when a company or organization promotes or advertises their climate action in a bid to look like they are making a difference while actually doing very little, or nothing.

It’s a marketing practice that corporations and organisations in all industries and fields have been found guilty of participating in. And with a recent study by Accenture finding that more than half of consumers are willing to spend more on sustainable products, you can see why.

Putting the desire to make money over real climate action is of course incompatible with the movement to address our fast-warming planet... but as sustainability becomes popular with the public (64% of people in a recent global survey said climate change is a global emergency), more and more companies are turning to greenwashing to make their products and services more attractive to eco-anxious buyers.

How can you spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing is often couched in vague, fluffy language without any tangible goals. Other times, while commendable goals are set, companies lack the follow-through. Looking for data to see where companies are meeting their goals year after year is a great first step to seeing if a brand is holding itself accountable. It can be overwhelming to start with, but TerraChoice has a great 7 point list to help you spot and avoid brands that use greenwashing. A few of our favourites are:

  1. Looking out for reliable third-party certifications, such as B Corp or LEED or TRUE Zero Waste certification

  2. Watching out for ‘the lesser of two evils.’ A company may be marketing their product as a “green” product but using a small description for a product that is ultimately doing more harm than good to the environment. For example, a coffee company that markets its product as “organic” while not looking into

  3. Bear in mind that some claims are irrelevant. Companies market their products proudly of being CFC (Chlorofluorocarbons which cause Ozone depletion) free even though they’ve been banned by government regulatory bodies around the world for over 30 years!

Holding companies accountable

Some good news! With the popularity of sustainability measures around the world, if a brand is found to be greenwashing, they can certainly suffer consequences. While a bad reputation doesn’t sound like much, knowing a company is greenwashing can be a powerful influence on consumer patterns.

Your voice as a consumer matters! In the case of Volkswagen, the backlash was felt intensely and almost immediately: two months after the emissions fraud was discovered, their car sales had dropped 20% in the UK and 25% in the U.S.

Doing some quick research on ethical brands is something you can easily share with friends and family - think of how many people we could empower into helping the planet through a single conversation! If you’re looking for some ‘pre-researched’ collections of sustainable products for everyday life, we can recommend the following as both local and internationally recognized websites and organisations:

Ethical Consumer

Fashion Transparency Index

Green Business Bureau

Ecolabel Index

What are your tips to avoid greenwashing? Do you have favourite brands with clear sustainability goals and metrics? We’d love to hear from you! Join the conversations via our Instagram channel, or say hi to the team at


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