Greenwashing. How to look greener without being it

Professor Olga Guerrero, Ph D. Chemical Engineer, University of Malaga

Greenwashing. How to look greener without being it

Greenwashing is a concept that describes a marketing campaign that focuses on an environmental positive impact of the organization or the product in order to increase sales, but, in reality, that impact does not exist, and, in some cases, the new proposed “green” option is even more pollutant that the conventional one. Thereby, greenwashing increases consume of goods, being detrimental for the environment.

Some marketing campaigns also greenwash some initiatives with vague claims, without providing real data or scientific validation to those arguments. For example, they use terms like “bio”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainability”, or just claiming to be “good for the planet” or “better for the environment”. The use of these terms may help the companies to appear greener and they have been extensively used without supporting evidence or facts. 

One example of greenwashing is when McDonald's began in 2019 to replace the plastic straws with those made of paper, with a marketing campaign that described the company as “eco-friendly” due to that. But it turned out that the paper straws were not recyclable and were not necessarily better that the plastic alternative due to several technical aspects (costs and residues of production and transportation).

Greenwashing impacts
Greenwashing can have a negative impact in the environment. First, the consumer realizes that the option they thought it was sustainable or more environmental benign. But when the consumer realizes that it was just greenwashing, a sense of distrust may occur and it provokes that the consumer will no longer trust the brand or product in question and, in general, in environmental arguments.
For companies that abuse of greenwashing, it can have a negative effect since the consumers may have the idea that they are not ethical, since this can degrade customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
Abusing of Greenwashing produce frustration and, at the end, it may provoke that general public won’t take real green initiatives seriously, and this will have a potential negative environmental impact. 
Thus, improving the formation of consumers in order to reduce the greenwashing effect, will have a positive effect in order to reduce environmental impact and also to increase consumer satisfaction and companies brand loyalty.

Good practices
The companies that afford some steps in order to prevent greenwashing, in addition to, of course, having good intentions, they are not trying to deliberately mislead anyone about their environmental commitments. 
First good practice is to use data to support any claim, to numerically detail the effects of the proposed actions/products.
The second good practice is to be truthful. Consider that, in the end, false statements, data and arguments will be discovered by the consumers.
Third practice would be to be specific and avoid the use of generic terms without a specific meaning. For example, using the terms “eco-friendly” without explaining how the product or service is environmental benign. Another way of being specific if to avoid misleading images. For example, avoid abusing of pictures from nature in order to evoke environmental friendliness that is not really related with the service or product.

Current and future challenges
In order to build a real trust in environmental issues, some areas must be addressed by the companies that use the concept of sustainability for their marketing campaigns.
The main challenge in these  marketing campaigns is  that all the materials and documents used to promote a service or product should be transparent and use real data and scientific arguments to support the information regarding sustainability and other environmental issues.
It is also necessary to develop agreed tools that may help to eliminate confusion on what is considered sustainable and what is not.
Further references
Education for Sustainability, Peace and Global Citizenship: An Integrative Approach. Yanniris, C., Educ. Sci. 2021, 11, 430.
Why Eco-labels can be Effective Marketing Tools: Evidence from a Study of Italian Consumers. Testa, F., Iraldo, F., Caccari, A., Ferrari, E. Bus. Strategy Environ. 2015, 24, 252-265.
Social Accountability and Corporate Greenwashing. J. Bus. Ethics, 2003, 43, 253-261.
Is the “Green Washing” Effect Stronger than Real Scientific Knowledge? Are we able to transmit formal knowledge in the face of marketing campaigns? Alonso-Calero, J.M., Cano, J., Guerrero-Pérez, M.O., Sustainability 2022, 14 (1) 285 (https://doi.org/10.3390/su14010285)
Looking through the “greenwashing glass cage” of the green league table towards the sustainability challenge for UK universities. Jones, D.R. J. Organizational Change Management 2012, ISSN 0953-4814