What is greenwashing?

by Charise Rohm Nulsen

Have you heard of greenwashing? My initial thought when I first heard this term was that it sounds an awful lot like whitewashing. It turned out that my inclination wasn’t far from the truth!

According to Wikipedia:

Greenwashing (a portmanteau of “green” and “whitewash”) is a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

In some ways, it’s exciting to know that being eco-friendly is important to so many consumers – and therefore, companies – these days. The downside of this is that we can’t simply take a quick glance at product labels or promotions to know the truth about exactly how environmentally friendly a product is.

Here are some of the most common ways that I personally have been duped over the last couple of years:

The claim: A hotel promotes itself as a green hotel because they only wash your sheets and towels if you request it, thereby reducing the amount of water that they use.
The reality: The hotel doesn’t bother to save water or energy with its use of electricity and landscaping, or within its restaurant.

The claim: A deodorant is advertised as fragrance-free.
The reality: I notice fragrance listed as one of the deodorant’s ingredients. The product was only called fragrance-free because it was not given an artificial scent of powder or a spring breeze or the mountains.

The claim: Food packaging states that the product is all natural.
The reality: “All natural” can mean almost anything. It isn’t regulated by the FDA and it has no actual nutritional meaning.

Other ridiculous examples:
- A bank is “green” just because you can conduct your banking online instead of using paper.
- A grocery store that automatically bags in plastic considers themselves “green” just because you can return your plastic bags to the store after use.
- Disposable diapers being called “natural” just because it contains an ingredient like aloe or vitamin E. Last time I checked, disposable diapers filling landfills is not a very green or natural concept.

Even some of your favorite earth-friendly companies may not be completely clear about exactly how eco-friendly a product is:
- Some Seventh Generation laundry soaps, dish soaps, bathroom cleaners, multi-purpose cleaners, and disinfecting wipes contain SLS or SLES.
- Mrs. Meyer’s and Planet Ultra laundry detergents contain No 1,4 dioxane.
- Many Clorox Green Works products contain dyes.

What can we do?
- Read labels very carefully, regardless of how a product has been promoted.
- Familiarize yourself with the Seven Sins of Greenwashing.
- Send a letter to companies that engage in greenwashing.
- Check out the Greenwashing index.

Green Marketing Exposed
Created by: Marketing Degree

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This is an updated and republished post.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Good Girl Gone Green December 2, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Amazing post, Charise! I love when companies say we are green because we recycle. I think every company should recycle, and I am not going to necessarily shop there because they do. I like honest companies like Chipotle that do try and make a difference.
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2 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama December 4, 2011 at 9:42 am

Thank you!

Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all companies were required to recycle!?

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3 Zoie @ TouchstoneZ December 3, 2011 at 1:41 am

Great post! The one that absolutely infuriates me is Starbucks. They put signs up all over about how they’re helping the environment. And they make no effort to recycle and compost! Argh! It completely infuriates me. Greenwashing! Argh!
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4 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama December 4, 2011 at 9:42 am

Thanks!

I know – absolutely infuriating!!

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5 Gaby @ Tmuffin December 3, 2011 at 3:51 pm

It cracks me up when hotels say they are green because they don’t wash your towels unless you request it. To me, it just seems like they are getting out of doing extra work!

Also, thanks for the info about Mrs. Meyers. I have been slathering myself with their lotion, and I had no idea. Ugh. But do you know why Johnson’s & Johnson’s has been getting such a bad rap for it, yet other (greener) companies aren’t getting any slack over having these chemicals in their products?
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6 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am

Same here!

I’m just happy when any company gets called out on these practices these days! People seem too willing to turn a blind eye.

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7 Ira @ Chicago Home Renovation December 4, 2011 at 9:31 am

I didn’t know about the term “greenwashing” until now. Well I appreciate some companies that support green movement but claiming that their entire business is “green” can be inappropriate. There is no standard on how green a company could be but at least they do something about it. Its just sad how they exaggerate it though for the sake of marketing.

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8 maynard@environmental issues December 5, 2011 at 6:19 am

what do you mean by greeen PR? does PR means “Page Rank”? so if i’m a little noobish.
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9 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama December 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

I meant public relations ;-)

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10 Cindy@Dental Blog December 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm

i like the infographics, the look really cool:) but… i haven’t heard the word “greenwashing” until now, but i have known the thing. I was always skeptic when i was reading the ads, i had the feeling that all of the big companies are already green. so how is it? the biggest companies are the greenest, but also they are the most dangerous destroyers of our green planet. somebody is lieing:)

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11 Mary@nyc sample sales December 8, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Very interesting post, I’ve thought about this a lot and about how “green” a company really is. Unless you do your research it’s hard to really tell who is truly eco-friendly. Have you ever heard of Wonderworld? I believe they plant a tree for every tree they use, which they only use trees that can no longer produce latex. They have a great line of products to help educate kids on recycling and respecting our planet!
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12 Jess @ Fashion Magazines December 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I really hate that so many products are calling themselves green these day. I wish that there was someone to regulate it. Also I have switch to KD Gold and I have been loving it for many different uses. Check it out, and if you find anything on it let me know.

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