What is Greenwashing?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Greenwashing is a marketing technique in which a company falsely claims environmental responsibility. As more and more consumers are concerned about sustainability and the environment, a growing number of corporations have stepped up, claiming to be improving their environmental practices and reforming their industries. While this may certainly be true in some cases, many of the claims of environmental stewardship made by companies are actually false, or at the very least extremely misleading.


The term is a portmanteau of “whitewashing,” in the sense of covering up misdeeds, and “green,” a common term used to refer to environmentally sound practices. The green movement encompasses food sources, building, energy, and everything in between, and it also represents a substantial source of potential income. A growing number of citizens, especially in the First World, are willing to pay a premium for “green” products. In addition to environmentally sensitive companies who are genuinely trying to practice business ethically, a number of corporations launch extensive greenwashing campaigns detailing all the ways in which they are environmentally responsible. For unwary consumers, the glossy greenwashing ads can suggest that the company is reputable and responsible.

Many companies in traditionally environmentally controversial industries have launched greenwashing campaigns. Numerous oil and car companies, for example, have glossy ads in major magazines touting their environmental programs. Other companies use misleading labeling on their products, or astroturf organizations to support their claims of environmentally sound business practices. Many greenwashing campaigns are nothing more than a highly deceptive marketing technique. This makes it doubly difficult for companies which actually are trying to practice business ethically, as it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish between greenwashing and truthful advertising.

Several things can be used as clues for consumers to detect a greenwashing campaign. The first thing to do is to follow the money and paper trails of the company. Consumers should seek out donation records, for example, seeing what kind of organizations the company donates and belongs to. This can also uncover astroturfing organizations, and may provide a more complete picture of the company's business ethic. Consumers should also seek out information which is not discussed in the greenwashing campaign, such as statistics on pollution from that company's factories.

Another important clue is consistency. Many companies announce a new environmentally program with great fanfare and then quietly cut the funding. Consumers remember the advertisements touting the program, but do not check to see whether or not the company followed through. In addition, consumers should look at the practices of the company overseas, especially in nations where environmental laws are lax. If the companies claims of sound environmental practices are not the case overseas, the company is probably greenwashing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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