What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of a company misleading or misrepresenting themselves to the public as to the degree of their environmental and social responsibility.
Note: It’s difficult to separate the environmental from the social. While the prevailing term for this type of behavior has become “greenwashing,” I do think that it’s worth bringing attention to misleading consumers/the public about social shortcomings as well.
Not to mention, the adage, “What we do to the people, we do the planet, what we do to the planet, we do to the people” is true.
Misleading the public about your carbon emissions or carbon crediting projects ultimately affects people (all of us!). Think emissions and air quality, pollution, and water quality. The effects on people and the planet are inextricably intertwined.
Other terms have come up here, such as woke-washing, or purpose-washing, but I don’t love those and they aren’t used widely. For the sake of greater accessibility, we’ll stick with and stretch this term “greenwashing.”
In this article, we’ll offer nine examples of greenwashing so that we can both be better at spotting greenwashing as consumers ourselves and understanding how to avoid greenwashing as leaders of a movement for better, more ethical, and sustainable business.
Examples of Greenwashing
1. Green by Association
We see “Green by Association,” when companies seek to capture certifications and join associations to garner some of the sustainability and social responsibility earned cred of those various groups.
For example, the Certified B Corporation community has worked tirelessly since its founding in 2007 to cement its position as the leading certification for businesses committed to doing business in a better, more ethical, and sustainable way.
In many ways, they’ve done that.
However, in the last few years, B Lab, the organization behind the certification, has certified (in my opinion) some troubling organizations; Havas Media, Nespresso, Evian, and Spadel.
Havas Media, a B Corp since 2021, recently bid for (and won) the media account of oil giant Shell.
Nespresso, a B Corp since 2022, was reported to have child laborers picking their coffee beans as recently as 2020. Nespresso is also a subsidiary of Nestlé, a company with an egregious history of human rights violations.
Evian, a B Corp since 2020, and Spadel, a B Corp since 2022, are companies that bottle and sell water in single-use plastic water bottles. Their products are just about by definition as unsustainable as can be (without being an oil & gas company, like Shell).
“Over the past year, we’ve shared our concerns with B Lab on four separate occasions – including an official complaint asking them not to welcome single-use water bottle-producing companies into our network of purpose-driven businesses that benefit people, communities, and the planet. Call us crazy, but we think that if your core product is inherently and unnecessarily harmful to people and/or the planet, then no amount of sustainable operations, workers’ rights, or charitable giving can make up for that. So far, B Lab has decided differently.”
— To B or not to B?, Virginia Yanquilevich (CEO of Dopper) and Merijn Everaarts (Founder of Dopper)
While this is a problem for B Lab and the credibility of the B Corporation certification (which in turn hurts member B Corp companies like Dopper), it’s also a problem for consumers.
That Certified B Corporation label is supposed to mean something!
Companies that have a history of labor abuses, sell by definition unsustainable products, or orchestrate anti-climate action campaigns can leverage the credibility of the B Corp label (earned by member companies like dopper) to make their brands appear to be likewise in an elite group that’s “using business as a force for good.”
There’s some idea that the Certified B Corporation label on a product implies that the product is sustainable, ethical, etc. Consumers feel better about their purchases after seeing that.
Workers are more than ever hoping to work for businesses with values, purpose, and integrity. The B Corporation label offers those workers some sort of promise. This business is different.
This is precisely what these greenwashing companies are exploiting.
However, if the B Corporation label appears to not be delivering on that promise, even in seemingly isolated scenarios, it risks undermining the credibility and legitimacy of all businesses with that label.
If it’s one member B Corp company, say, Ben & Jerry’s, employing migrant children on their supplying U.S. dairy farms (as I’ve discussed before), it can affect the perceived legitimacy of the entire community.
These large multinational companies are leveraging the reputation that many of the B Corps before them—those that do, walk the walk—have established.
If it’s true that we’re that we become the average of the company we keep, do companies like those mentioned above raise the bar for communities like that of B Corp, or lower it?
Is B Lab eroding the credibility of its community because of the companies it keeps?
By association, greenwashers are leeches who will capitalize on the reputation and integrity of others to make it appear like their own.
“Green by Association,” an ever-present method of greenwashing that conscious consumers and communities (like B Corp) must be vigilant to combat if we’re to keep our integrity intact.
2. Just a Little More!
The “Just a Little More!” greenwashing tactic is employed by many a corporate CEO. When confronted about a vile business practice, the answer is a sidestep essentially saying, “Only a little while longer!”
Let’s take Tim Cook, Apple CEO, for example. Apple (along with many other tech companies) has been accused of egregious human rights violations in mining cobalt predominately in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cook’s response? Don’t worry, we’re planning to use 100% recycled cobalt by 2025.
So, what he’s saying is, we’re going to continue to use child labor until 2025. At that point, those children will thankfully have gathered enough cobalt for us to where we can just continue to recycle what we have.
This type of response is a distraction with the cherry on top being the seemingly “eco-friendly” move to recycled cobalt, an attempt to strengthen Apple’s image in the face of these accusations.
3. The Politician’s Promise
“The Politician’s Promise,” is a promise made by a company with no plans to fulfill on it.
In recent history, we can pinpoint the example reported by Grist, where investigations found “Climate commitments from 24 of the world’s largest self-proclaimed green companies are “misleading” and “wholly insufficient” to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
In the wave of growing popularity around sustainability, company after company has made some climate pledges. Turns out, pledges or commitments mean nothing to some companies.
They perhaps see that they gain enough benefit from pledging, without having to do any of the work to fulfill it.
The whole crux of greenwashing, and specifically this example here, is that it might be just as effective in branding, marketing, and sales for a company to be perceived as sustainable as to be sustainable.
Unfortunately, given the power, influence, and resources behind many corporate marketing engines and as well, the status quo of an exceptionally opaque global marketplace, businesses can to some extent, take that bet.
These companies: Amazon, Pepsico, H&M, Volkswagon, Mercedes-Benz, Nestlé, American Airlines, and sadly, many more have taken that exact bet as they were among the named in that reporting from Grist.
4. The Duck Test
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck, right?
If the product looks sustainable and sounds sustainable, then it must be, right?
Nike was recently hit with a class action lawsuit over misleading sustainability claims.
Investigations found that “of the 2,452 Nike ‘Sustainability’ Collection Products … only 239 Products are made with any recycled materials.”
And for our example here we’re focusing on this aspect of the class action suit:
The suit states, “The products that do contain recycled material are predominantly made with recycled polyester and recycled nylon, two materials that the case emphasizes are “still plastic” and thus not biodegradable.”
Further, “Synthetic materials such as polyester, a form of plastic derived from oil, shed plastic particles—known as microplastics—as they continue to be washed and worn, the case says.
These materials are “a prime source of microplastic pollution,” which is especially harmful to marine life, the suit relays. And, they are incredibly pervasive, it was reported just a couple of years ago, that microplastics were found in the placentas of unborn babies.
Just because something is recycled does not mean it’s sustainable. Despite some of Nike’s more egregious misrepresentations of their products, this point here is vastly more pervasive throughout the fashion industry.
Recycled polyester. Sustainable? How are you or I supposed to know? I don’t have any expertise in the cutting edge of sustainable materials.
Adidas boasts they are now using 96% recycled polyester in all their products — and they are headed for 100%.
Patagonia likewise uses recycled polyester, and claims as of Fall 2023, 95% of all their polyester used is recycled.
Is recycled polyester better than virgin polyester? Sure. The use of recycled polyester could reduce emissions by 32% compared to virgin polyester.
However, it gets complicated.
Recycled or not, polyester is still going to shed microplastics. And as well to add more complexity, recycled polyester is sourced from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which apparently can be effectively recycled up to 10 times.
And so, while fashion sustainability execs such as Seana Hannah at Nike tell The Guardian “We divert more than 1bn plastic bottles on average a year from landfills,” by taking that plastic out of a more efficient system and bringing it into the fashion industry an incredibly wasteful system, they might be accelerating the rate at which that material makes it to the landfill.
Because what happens to Nike products at the end of life? Are they being recycled? Or tossed away?
Regardless, it’s important to know, that just because a company calls their material sustainable or uses language that would imply it is (e.g. recycled), it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.
5. The Bullfighter
Adidas tells us, the “Time for Change is Now.”
Their mission is to end plastic waste. They acknowledge it’s ambitious, impossible even.
Queue up a cut, “Impossible is nothing”
But they go further on to say, “We are one planet. So, we’ll tackle this as one team.”
Seemingly unrelated during the COVID-19 pandemic, garment workers in Cambodia who produce for Adidas were deprived of 109 million dollars of wages in April-May of 2021 alone according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Adidas is not alone in this pandemic-era wage theft, but they are reportedly the greatest offender here.
When Adidas uses words like “we” and “one team,” they exclude the people who make their clothes.
You cannot be a leader in sustainability while exploiting people living in poverty who make your products.
“The Bullfighter,” used by many, is a greenwashing tactic employed to get us to “look over here,” while the greenwasher takes care of their business as usual.
Ethics and sustainability, don’t exist in isolation. You don’t get to choose which issues you’ll be a leader on and others you’ll egregiously disregard.
6. Glass Half Full
“Glass Half Full” greenwashing is a little more nuanced and difficult to identify. Yes, of course, like all other means of greenwashing, the idea is to mislead and misrepresent for the sake of a better image and as a result of that, greater business success.
However, I find that even unintentionally, typically responsible companies are misleading and misrepresenting themselves to the public.
Let’s take a crown jewel of the better business movement, for example, Patagonia.
On Patagonia.com, on their page discussing their stance and progress on living wages, you’ll see this sentence:
“As of 2021, 33 percent (10 out of 33) of our apparel-assembly factories are paying their workers a living wage, on average.”
In my opinion, this is misleading. While 33 percent isn’t a particularly high number on this scale, it does give some semblance of progress.
But more importantly, this is a discussion around the brand of Patagonia overall.
Scroll through Patagonia.com, and you’ll see many products with the “Fair Trade Certified” emblem, and Patagonia I believe has one of the highest if not the highest scores on the B Impact Assessment that determines a company’s B Corporation certification.
There’s an idea that Patagonia is the standard for socially and environmentally responsible business.
But 7 out of 10 of your supplying factories aren’t paying living wages? And mind you, this is now roughly 13 years after Patagonia launched this plan.
Is 33% percent progress? Is that a number you’re happy with?
Depends—do you see the glass as a third full and two-thirds empty?
For a company like Patagonia, the standards are undoubtedly high. They do after all say, “They are in business to save our home planet.” And yeah, the people working in their supplying factories who may or may not make a living wage, kinda, sorta, live on the planet.
Are we saving the planet? Or are we just damaging it a little less?
The reason I draw attention to companies like Patagonia, while for many reasons I admire them, is because I wholeheartedly believe we can and should do better.
If you are surprised at the criticism of Patagonia because of “all the good they do,” is 67% of workers maybe not getting paid a living wage throughout a supply chain, good enough for you?
Is that transforming the global economy to be a force for good, or just good enough?
There’s some perception that Patagonia is all that which we should strive to achieve. When consumers buy a Patagonia sweater, they’re supporting the best that the business community has to offer.
While admirable on several fronts, there’s a broader story to be told and potentially varying aspirations for an economy that works (or even just appropriately pays) all people.
7. Green by Acquisition
In 2020, Perdue Farms, one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S., acquired a small consumer poultry brand, Pasturebird.
Pasturebird has made a name for itself by producing 100% pasture-raised chicken, using incredibly innovative mobile coop technology, and advocating for regenerative agriculture to become more widely adopted.
Perdue Farms, on the other hand, is under federal inquiry due to reports of illegal child labor. This is weeks after a horrific account of a workplace injury at a Perdue slaughterhouse that took the arm of a 14-year-old boy.
And certainly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
So, through acquisition, Perdue gets to add a brand that’s leading the curve on more sustainable farming and poultry practices.
If questioned, Perdue has a Pasturebird, for example, to point to when asked about what they are doing regarding the ill effects of their industry.
And Pasturebird is then put into the very difficult position of defending its parent brand or taking a stance. What do you think happens?
It almost feels like the plot of a mafia movie. What happens when you take their money? They own you.
8. The Trojan Horse
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has been a Certified B Corporation since 2012. Their Founders wrote a book on values-led business. It’s titled “Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: Lead With Your Values and Make Money, Too.”
On Ben & Jerry’s Certified B Corporation directory profile, it reads: “Ben & Jerry’s has a progressive, nonpartisan Social Mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices in our local, national, and international communities.”
In February 2023, the New York Times reported that migrant child labor is employed to “process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.” But when asked about the discovery of this child labor in their supply chain, Ben & Jerry’s head of “values-led sourcing,” said something to the effect of:
“…if migrant children needed to work full time, it [is] preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.”
I guess if children need to work, they should do it for a values-led business! Is there not something a bit oxymoronic about calling a workplace that employs migrant child labor “well-monitored?”
The people exploiting children also offer a healthy work environment?
What’s happening here? A Certified B Corporation? Founders who were pioneers in better business?I think Dean Cycon, Founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee described it well in the prologue to his excellent book, Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee which he published in 2007. Dean wrote:
“Many people said we [Dean’s Beans] would be “the Ben and Jerry’s of coffee,” but that company was transforming rapidly into just another big business owned by a multinational with rich but disgruntled founders. No thanks. I wasn’t doing this to become a “grow it and sell it” millionaire. Nor did I want to cash in on my “social responsibility” as the new owners kept the public persona but hollowed out the core principles of the business—a frequent dynamic with “progressive” businesses these days.”
Ben & Jerry’s was sold to Unilever, the multinational valued well over $100 billion, in the year 2000.
On the outside, Ben & Jerry’s has retained its activist flavor. On the inside? Incidents like this seem to shed some light.
Ben & Jerry’s has become a paramount example of what happens when you build a brand around ethics, morals, activism, and responsibility.
But the business they’ve built, at least shown in this example, has apparently gone in a different direction.
A Trojan Horse of social responsibility in business. A brand on the outside saying one thing (loudly, even), the business doing another.
Truly “better businesses” commit to doing the boring things right (e.g. knowing their supply chain).
9. Just Telling Your Favorite Parts
Allbirds claims they are on a mission to “Reverse Climate Change Through Better Business.”
In Allbirds’ 2021 Sustainability Report, which they call their “Flight Status,” Allbirds highlights, in a large majority, only their progress.
In the introduction, Allbirds reminds us, “We have committed to cutting our per-product carbon footprint in half by the end of 2025. We’ve also committed to reducing our per-product carbon footprint to near zero by 2030.”
They go on to share they reduced that per-product carbon footprint by 12%. And, in large part, that’s what the rest of the Sustainability Report is dedicated to, explaining how they’ve made that progress on their “per-product carbon footprint.”
It’s annoying to say that so many times, right? I’m sure it’s annoying to hear me say it repeatedly.
So why am I doing this to all of you?
Because on one page (page 23 of 24), they show us that their total carbon footprint has grown. That’s because Allbirds made and sold more shoes in 2021 than in 2020.
4% of Allbirds’ sustainability report shows their total carbon footprint has increased. The remainder is about all the progress they are making. And, to be clear, to find this information, you need to click into a PDF report linked once on their sustainability page and read through the entirety of it (which I did) till you find this acknowledgment.
And perhaps you’re thinking…”Hey, they told you, didn’t they? What’s the problem? The information is there, Cory!”
On the second to last page of a PDF? Let’s all remind ourselves that we are contrasting this against Allbirds, saying their “mission is to reverse climate change through better business?” I have to find and read through a PDF where they finally acknowledge that their net impact on the environment in 2021 was negative.
A wildly ambitious mission must be met with a comparably courageous acknowledgment of where they stand concerning that goal.
As for their 2022 Flight Status report? Allbirds informed us they made further progress on their per-product carbon footprint! They made a 19% reduction compared to 2021!
Oh, and as for their total carbon footprint? They decided not to mention it.
Why? By choosing not to share details that might raise questions, I can’t help but feel like a company is trying to hide something.
Allbird’s accomplishments with their, yes, “per product carbon footprint,” are admirable, but in the wake of many concerning public stories such as:
- Its stock tanking 96% since its IPO in November of 2021
- Sales taking a hit causing C-Suite shakeups bringing in a new CFO who last worked at Gymshark and Adidas
- Fast Company calling Allbirds a “Zombie brand,” implying that the business model is fundamentally flawed and could only survive as it has on mounds of venture capital money.
Under what seems like insurmountable external and internal pressure to compromise on your publicly stated values and commitments you need to be ruthlessly transparent to retain your reputation and accountability.
Crimes of business’ past (and present) have unfortunately put us in a position to assume the worst to protect those affected who don’t have the platform to speak for themselves.
You must tell the whole story, not just your favorite parts.
Why Greenwashing is Bad
Let’s be clear: both defining and identifying greenwashing is not important to protect investors, heck, even protect us as consumers of these “would be” sustainable products, it’s to protect the people who suffer more directly from the exploitation, unchecked pollution, and prolonged descension into climate catastrophe.
We must buy what we were expecting to buy, sure, but it’s more important that livelihoods and lives are protected throughout the globalized marketplace.
Lacking transparency and lacking legitimacy in communications and sustainability claims is not about what is being hidden or hurt, it’s about who.
Greenwashing from even the best and brightest examples of better business muddies the waters and gives us a false sense of change and progress.
Consumers are demanding more. Workers are demanding more. No more false promises or half-truths. Greening up the status quo won’t get us anywhere. We also won’t shop our way into a more sustainable world.
We have to be honest with ourselves and all the various stakeholders affected by our businesses.
Disillusionment works in the favor of businesses’ worst offenders, the Amazons, the Apples, and the Walmarts, who seemingly will exploit and extract in plain sight as long as earnings continue to increase.
But to businesses that have committed to doing business better and encourage all of us to demand that become standard, the disillusionment of consumers and workers must be avoided at all costs.
And so complete transparency, telling the whole story, and acknowledging imperfections before others have to, must become the norm.
What’s important isn’t business, it’s that things get better for the most people possible—business just has an outsized influence and impact on whether or not that is the case.
Greenwashing and mixed, PR-laced messages on sustainability and social responsibility are a hindrance to first making things less bad, but further making things truly better.
We cannot forget, that pursuing more sustainable and ethical business practices is not about achieving business’ greatest potential, but humanity’s greatest potential.
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Co-Founder& CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.