Don’t be colourblind in the era of greenwashing

The increasing public interest in sustainability matters is really good news. But there is also another side to the coin. For brands and businesses being perceived as ethical and sustainable drives profitability, and this sometimes results in less desirable outcomes – yes, let’s talk about greenwashing.


The concept of greenwashing has been around since 1986, and originates in a hotel in New York that was hosting a certain guest demonstrating the qualities of an early adopter environmentalist. He questioned the integrity of the hotel’s “save a towel” movement, as the establishment was wasting resources in many other ways. And he came up with the term “greenwashing”.

It’s safe to say that the problem of greenwashing has only become more apparent in recent years. This is not because companies or brands intentionally want to deceive us. More so due to the fact that being socially and environmentally conscious sells. Consequently marketing and advertising departments are throwing words like “green” and “eco-friendly” out there without actual evidence to back up their claims.

In the era of information overload – how can you be sure?

For both the B2B and B2C sectors, behind every sustainable product is usually a sophisticated supply chain. An ecosystem designed to make sure that valuable resources are efficiently used, CO2 emissions are minimised and all the parties involved are treated equally and respectfully throughout the supply chain. This can sometimes be an exhausting picture to paint, and people get confused. So is it any wonder that it is easier to be enraptured by singular green promises?

As for the different shades of greenwashing, are there some giveaways? One Green Planet advises us to pay attention if a brand is boasting with vague buzzwords such as “all-natural” and “conscious”. Or if they are all about idyllic imagery crowded with earthy colours, wildlife and forests (not fitting the context).

When it comes to brand storytelling, it’s each to their own, but we do agree that the equation of exaggerated marketing claims and well-meaning customers is most certainly not going to save the Earth.  That is why it’s absolutely vital to be open and concrete when it comes to sustainability – both from the product and the packaging perspective. Most efficiently, it’s done by providing some credible evidence for the consumer. And by credible, we mean globally acknowledged eco-labelling or understandable and concrete communications on certified raw material sourcing.

40% of environmental sustainably claims on websites appear to be misleading towards customers, according to a study initiated by The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Green packaging or total cover-up?

The only prevailing “green consensus” in packaging seems to be that plastic is bad, and pretty much everything else is ok. Often this is down to getting lost in the mishmash of terminology. You see, in addition to recyclable and renewable, sustainable packaging can refer to, for example, degradable, biodegradable or bioplastic packaging. Instead of getting caught in the jungle of terms, the environmentally enlightened citizen might enjoy discovering current sustainable packaging trends from reliable sources.

Plastic is still a necessary material for its endurance and ability to preserve the shelf life, flavour and texture of food. But paperboard solutions are being developed continuously to replace as much plastic as possible. Sometimes tragicomic cases surface when it comes to “green packaging” – one example being a South Korean beauty brand that wrapped their plastic bottles in paper and wrote on the side “Hello, I’m Paper Bottle”. To make matters worse, their response to public outrage left much to be desired, as they stated they had “overlooked the possibility that naming could mislead people”.

So when it comes to packaging, it really is about making sure the raw material is of sustainable origin, minimises the environmental impact, uses as few resources as possible and is also suitable for recycling. Here is one example of how the forest industry player can try to be transparent and concrete about it, and it really explains in plain English the actions behind the sustainability claims.

As a consumer – what to keep an eye on?

How do you avoid being greenwashed and spot “the real deal”? The key is to find out rather than swallowing every green claim or trusting your gut feeling. We’ve summarised three tips to look for when you are making purchase decisions.

  1. Look for evidence of a holistic approach to sustainability – meaning that it is considered throughout the supply chain and in all operations.
  2. Transparency is always a good sign, and it also means being upfront about what needs improving, and admitting if mistakes have been made.
  3. If it’s true, there will be proof. So dig deeper for sustainability certifications, concrete actions made and endorsements such as credible news pieces in respected media.

There are no absolute answers when it comes to greenwashing

Ali Harlin, Research Professor, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Ali Harlin, Research Professor at Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT, shares his insights and advice on greenwashing.

Do you think we are currently in an era of greenwashing?

Environmental aspects are always hot topics, in one way or another. Whenever there is consumer communication or consumer marketing, there are bound to be aspects and issues that stick to the current agenda and of course, these will be utilized by marketers.

What is your organization’s relationship to the greenwashing phenomenon?

We strive to study and discuss topics from multiple different viewpoints, rather than taking part in the political aspects of public discussion. We do not want to promote just one solution, as there are always so many sides to the story. We have, for instance, multiple different interdisciplinary viewpoints and study directions when it comes to packaging, all the way from how packaging preserves the product to what new innovative materials can be used.

It’s surprisingly easy to be labelled as a greenwasher. Is this really so black and white?

As the world changes and understandings shift, the idea of what is environmentally acceptable develops. These shifts are constant, and they can also be sudden and unpredictable. 

In addition, the interconnectivity of materials and the environment is multifaceted and complicated on many levels. All in all, labelling something or someone guilty of greenwashing is not so black and white. We are first and foremost products of our time and when it comes to determining what is right or wrong, there are multiple streams of information that guide us along the way.

How could different actors avoid accidentally carrying out greenwashing in their communication?

There are two different ways of falling into the greenwashing trap, intended and unintended. As long as we know that there are the things we don’t yet know and things that might be seen differently in 10 years, we can adapt a sort of journalistic point of view; working with what we have. The key element here is to make sure your sources are valid and that all known facts and aspects are taken into consideration. There are no absolute correct answers.

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