What Is Greenwashing?

“Environmentally friendly.ʼʼ “Sustainable.ʼʼ “Eco-friendly.ʼʼ “Green.ʼʼ

By Chloe Smith

These buzzwords surround many products today that claim the consumer can do their part to save the planet. But are these products preventing global warming? Or are these claims greenwashing ploys?

What is greenwashing? Biologist Jay Westervelt coined the term in a 1986 essay about hotels urging guests to reuse towels to save water. The term referred to companies spending more time, energy and money on advertising the eco-friendliness of their product than making it eco-friendly. The little green leaf on the package may promise a better planet for the future, but it ends up right back in the landfill.

The last few years have seen many cases of greenwashing. The Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus have been iconic cars since the 1960s. However, due to the push for “clean diesel,” Volkswagen began a deception. They installed software that “reduced” the amount of carbon emissions during tests, making their fleet of vehicles seem greener by producing fewer pollutants. In 2016 the California Air Resources Board investigated the data, and found Volkswagen was producing 40 times more than the permitted amount of nitrogen oxides. The result was millions of dollars lost in lawsuits.

Listen as Cedarville University professor Dr. Mark Gathany talks in detail about greenwashing.

While intentional deception, like in Volkswagenʼs case, is rare, it throws confusion into the market on what is truly green. Consumers are more suspicious because everyone is claiming to “go green.”

Why do companies stretch the truth? First, the boundaries for what is considered environmentally friendly can be blurry and ambiguous. Second, companies face a lot of pressure to go green.

There are several categories of greenwashing to look out for on the market. The most common one is hidden tradeoff. This happens when a product focuses on one trait and ignores the other ones that still cause harm to the environment. This paints a falsely positive image on the impact of the product. For example, paper products that are marketed as “recyclable” fail to address the manufacturing impacts like air or water emissions. Fiji water marketed their bottles as being “untouched by man,” emphasizing how they donʼt touch the environment to gather the water. But they fail to mention the four billion pounds of waste their plastic bottles create.

Using vague language is a common theme in greenwashing claims.This “fluffy language” describes products as all-natural or naturally derived. This is a case of it being technically true, but not what they are leading customers to believe. The ingredients in their product may come from nature, but that doesnʼt mean they are safe for the consumer or the environment. Lead is a natural element, but it still poses harm to human beings, and shouldnʼt be used in products.

Another marketing claim is labeling something free of a harmful chemical, when it has no need for that chemical in the first place. A product can boast the label of “phosphate-free,” even if it never needed to add phosphates in the first place. This is extremely misleading, and an attempt to increase revenue for looking sustainable.

In 2018, a Nestle press release stated they would tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Immediately, their campaign was met with criticism. They used vague words, avoided numerical goals, and used the phrase ”collective approach.” Many felt this was blame shifting from one of the biggest corporations responsible for pollution.

Greenpeace publicly called Nestleʼs campaign “greenwashing baby steps.”

Nestle doesnʼt have a great track record of being kind to the environment. A beach cleanup in the Philippines found 17% of the trash was from Nestle. They had faced claims of unethical practices for how they acquired their materials. Accusations of child labor, human trafficking, disregard for local communities, and illegal water usage all hang around their reputation.

If Nestle were to make a lasting impact on the environment, theyʼd have to turn their business model upside down. Vague language and shoving the burden onto regular people to save the environment are not sustainable ways to actually be sustainable.

In light of all this, how can the average consumer spot greenwashing? A survey by the Business of Sustainability Index showed 66% of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Out of these people, 78% of them didn’t know what to identify.

The best way to fact check a company’s claims is to look at the data. Anyone can say anything or string a few half-truths together to protect their image. But a company truly determined to leave a positive impact on the planet will have data, research and solid proof for their claims. Numbers show where the truth lies, and a company trying

to deceive the consumer will never reveal their real numbers. While greenwashing cannot be completely prevented, the public can be educated on what to watch out for if they truly want to make an environmentally friendly difference.


Delmas, M. (2018) The Green Bundle: Pairing the Market with the Planet.

Stanford University Press




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