The Anti-Greenwashing Guide for Customers: Steps to Detect Deceptive Claims
Here is our guide to outsmarting greenwashing and embracing genuine sustainability
Awareness around the green sector and environmentally friendly practices is on the rise. In the past year, an increasing number of individuals have embraced a more sustainable way of life, prioritizing mindful consumption, reduced meat consumption, and eco-conscious transportation choices. This shift may be driven, in part, by the pressure of inflationary forces, leading to decreased overall spending on groceries and transportation, but overall, attitudes are changing. And as the attitude towards the environment evolves, companies and corporations are recognizing the significance of sustainability and capitalizing on the green advertising phenomenon.
How to Spot the Green Advertising from the Greenwashing
Green advertising is not a threat; on the contrary, it serves as a catalyst to encourage consumers to embrace sustainable products and adopt environmentally friendly behaviors. Green advertising explicitly or implicitly addresses the relationship between a product and the environment, promotes a green lifestyle, and portrays a corporate image of environmental responsibility. It is evident that green advertising itself is a positive practice, highlighting sustainable best practices and inspiring consumers to consider greener choices.
When green advertising collides with lies and deceptive claims, however, its essence transforms, posing a threat to both companies and customers. Messages become obscure, false, and misleading, creating a climate of mistrust surrounding the corporation and the entire industry. This phenomenon is known as greenwashing.
Consumers find themselves amidst an unprecedented information overload, making it challenging to discern truth from falsehood. To navigate this landscape, consumers need effective tools that help them identify deceitful claims and differentiate between genuine green advertising and mere greenwashing.
Introducing the 13 Greenwashing Claims
Greenwashing can manifest itself in various forms, making it crucial to develop the ability to recognize them. Our comprehensive list of 13 greenwashing claims serves as a valuable resource, equipping you with the tools to navigate through deceptive messaging. While it may be challenging to immediately identify the type of claim you encounter, we have included a set of insightful questions to guide your discernment and train your mind to seek authenticity in an organization’s sustainability efforts. To assist you further, we will also categorize these claims into three distinct groups: impact, alignment, and communication. This categorization allows for a deeper understanding of how greenwashing operates across different dimensions, enabling you to uncover the underlying tactics employed by companies.
1. Selective disclosure: The claim is based on a narrow set of attributes and distracts consumers from the organization’s greater environmental impact.
In this situation, the company wants to focus just on some aspects, knowing that the greater picture is not as attractive as the selected information. When a claim seems vague or doesn’t seem to reveal the full picture, we should ask ourselves: Has the organization taken into account the whole product lifecycle? Has the organization disclosed all the possible information about its social and environmental performance?
An example: “In the last semester, CO2 emissions were reduced by 6%.” In this case, the company is not considering the full year when framing the communication, selecting only positive information.
2. Empty claims: Making claims that exaggerate achievements or that are not backed up.
In this case, companies tend to claim something that has no validation in real life. We should ask ourselves: Are there indicators proving the results mentioned in the claim? Does the claim deflect attention to minor issues or lead to “green talk”?
An example: “Every year we are getting greener and greener.” In this case, “greener and greener” has no clear meaning because it is a subjective term.
3. Irrelevant: Proclaiming accomplishments that are irrelevant or already required by law.
Here, the company tries to overestimate something that is mandatory. The question to be asked is: Is this result a voluntary, sustainable action, or is it compulsory?
4. Lies: Claims are outright lies.
Customers must ask themselves, as they would in the case of fake news, is there any scientific evidence to support this claim?
5. Just not credible: Claims tout environmentally friendly attributes of a controversial practice.
The company in this situation tries to make the public feel “green” about a choice that can be dangerous for the environment. We should ask: Does this choice have possible future adverse impacts on the environment?
An example: “80% cotton and 20% polyester. Easily recyclable material!” Customers need to pay attention to the consistency of the information. In this specific example, mixing cotton with polyester in a yarn does not make the recycling process easier.
6. Corporate responsibility in action: the claim does not reflect or align with the organization’s actual practices.
In this situation, companies tend to talk more and act less. The question is: Is the vision or the product in conflict with the claim?
7. Dubious certifications: The claim has certifications that are prone to greenwashing.
Many times, corporations use false or internal certifications to reach certain standards. Customers should ask: Is this label globally recognized? Does this certification have some external assurance?
8. Political spin: the organization makes numerous claims and green commitments while it simultaneously lobbies against environmental laws.
Companies try to claim green practices, but then, with their investments, they do not support sustainable progress. Here we should ask: Are there excessive green commitments while the organization simultaneously lobbies against environmental laws? Is the company affiliated with unsustainable entities?
9. Co-opted endorsement: Claims that an organization involved in greenwashing receives endorsement from other entities.
In the realm of greenwashing, companies often lend support to each other. Therefore, it is crucial to inquire whether the organization in question receives financial backing from a greenwashed company. The question you should ask is: Are the organization’s activities endorsed by other greenwashed entities? Does the company receive financial support from such sources?
10. No proof: Claims lack readily available evidence to substantiate them.
While communicating, companies can try to report vague claims that have no supporting data. The question is: Is there no readily available evidence or robust data to support the claims? Do the statements lack independent and verifiable evidence?
An example: “This T-shirt is proven to demand less water usage than an average t-shirt during the production phase.” This claim can be considered greenwashing due to missing information about proofs and certifications backing up what is communicated.
11. Vagueness: The claim is poorly defined, so its real meaning is misunderstood.
By staying vague, corporations can make opaque claims while intentionally hiding key information. We should ask: Is the claim poorly defined, intentionally hiding crucial information? Was it created without robust metrics to support its true meaning?
An example: “Try these new eco-friendly trousers!” The word “eco-friendly” is not clear and does not provide specific information. For this reason, this claim can be considered vague.
12. Misleading symbols: Claims use visuals and symbols that induce false perceptions of the organization’s greenness.
For example, companies can use the color green to communicate an environmentally responsible perception of a product that, in reality, is not. We need to ask: Do the claims use visuals and symbols that create false perceptions of the organization’s greenness? Do they rely on the color green to evoke an environmentally responsible image, despite the product’s reality?
13. Jargon: Claims use jargon that consumers can’t understand.
Sometimes, companies use technical words just to mislead consumers. We need to ask: Is this technical language really necessary and useful to understand more, or does it serve to confuse the consumer and hide something?
An example: “We implemented new sustainability drivers in the supply chain to evaluate the environmental costs of the delivery phase.” This communication is written with many technical words in order to distract the reader from the specific meaning of each part of the sentence.
Let’s Apply the Guide
Having witnessed the diverse manifestations of greenwashing, it becomes clear that memorizing every deceptive claim is not paramount. Instead, grasp the underlying rationale of greenwashing communications. Armed with the questions provided, you can discern whether the messages you encounter in your daily life are authentic green claims or mere facades. So, the next time greenwashing tries to pull the wool over your eyes, you’ll be armed with the wit and wisdom to see through the charade.
 “Sustainability and Consumer Behaviors 2022.” Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/sustainable-consumer.html
 “The Definition of Green Advertising.” Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00913367.1995.10673473
Author: Giuseppe Scandariato
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