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What is greenwashing?

Read our guide and learn how to steer clear of marketing that is suspiciously green.

The demand for sustainable and environmentally friendly products is becoming greater and greater. There are many good reasons for this, as many of us try our best to take care of the climate and the planet and ensure better working conditions for those who produce our goods.  

With more and more people making the switch to eco-friendly products, it can sound like common sense to consider offering climate-friendly and sustainable products in your online shop. However, before you start marketing your products, it is a good idea to be familiar with the concept of greenwashing and why it should be avoided.  

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Greenwashing – what is it?

Broadly speaking, greenwashing is misleading marketing where a company markets products in a way that makes them appear greener or more sustainable than they are.

The definition of greenwashing

Greenwashing is a term used to describe companies providing misleading information about apparently environmentally friendly or sustainable products or services. It is considered greenwashing when a product description promises that a product is either sustainable or environmentally friendly when it is not, or when it does not fully meet all the requirements for an eco-friendly product.

Why greenwashing is a problem

For a business, using inaccurate and even deceitful marketing risks the trust between itself and its customers. On a society-wide level, greenwashing damages collective efforts to address pressing environmental issues. By promoting a false sense of sustainability, companies that greenwash pull attention and resources away from authentic eco-friendly initiatives. Moreover, companies that greenwash risk slowing down progress towards a genuinely sustainable future by increasing consumer scepticism and distrust.

Greenwashing globally

Greenwashing is a large and extensive problem across the globe. Major organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are working to overcome the problem. As it becomes an international concern, countries are also creating guidelines and regulations to avoid greenwashing. In the UK, for example, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has a website dedicated to preventing greenwashing that provides guidelines and checklists for companies to verify if their eco-friendly claims hold up to scrutiny.   

One of the most important requirements is that you, as the owner of an online shop or physical store, must be able to document that the information you convey about your products is correct. Brand trust and loyal customers are essential if you want to be successful in e-commerce. For this reason, it is extremely important that you put together a marketing strategy that meets the requirements, both to avoid being accused of greenwashing and to ensure that your customers feel safe shopping in your store.

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at examples of greenwashing.

Examples of greenwashing

As the demand for environmentally friendly, responsibly manufactured, and sustainable products has grown, more and more large companies have been accused and convicted of greenwashing. Several of the cases were highlighted in the news because they involved well-known international companies and brands that are popular with consumers in many countries.

When a green T-shirt is not green after all

Many of the greenwashing cases that have been in the media spotlight have been about large fashion chains that have sold clothes or entire collections labelled the products as environmentally friendly or responsibly produced. Besides adding green labels and fancy words, several of the clothing chains have not made it possible for customers to actually find detailed information about how the products were produced and why they were environmentally friendly. After being accused of greenwashing, several of these clothing chains have changed their communication strategies and are now more careful when communicating about sustainability.

Of course, not all greenwashing cases are about clothes. The list of companies that have been accused of this type of misleading marketing includes, among others, dairy companies that have marketed milk as carbon-neutral; plain sodas with ‘green’ labels; fast food restaurants with biodegradable straws that have yet to deliver on further promises; diesel cars marketed as climate-friendly when they weren’t; and not-so-eco-friendly wooden furniture made from wood sourced from illegal logging operations.

The examples are many, and often the same companies are accused again and again, which leads to poorer brand trust and higher churn as climate-conscious customers prefer companies with transparent marketing.

7 sins of greenwashing

When you want to avoid greenwashing in your marketing, it can be useful to know the list of “The 7 sins of greenwashing”. The ‘7 Sins’ list was presented by Terrachoice in 2007 to help consumers see through misleading and/or false environmental claims. Although the list is made for consumers, you can use it as a guide when you market products and services in your online shop.

The 7 sins of greenwashing 

  1. Hidden conditions 
    Example: A company markets its product as environmentally friendly due to reduced packaging but fails to mention that the CO2 footprint has increased because other materials are now imported from abroad.
  1. Lack of documentation  
    Example:  A cleaning product is marketed as “100% natural” but lacks third-party certification or transparent information to support the claim.
  1. Vagueness
    Example: A car manufacturer uses vague terms such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” without elaborating on the specific environmental benefits or providing the customer with concrete information.
  1. Irrelevance 
    Example: A company markets a product as CFC-free and ignores the fact that the man-made greenhouse gases CFCs were banned back in the 1970s, making this claim irrelevant and misleading because in reality, the company has done nothing but comply with the law. 
  1. Lesser of two evils 
    Example: A fast food chain markets a new plant-based burger in a way that diverts attention from the company’s overall environmental impact, such as overuse of resources and lack of recycling.
  1. False claims 
    Example: A clothing brand labels its T-shirts as “organic”, but on closer inspection the organic content is minimal, and the T-shirt is primarily made from conventional materials. 
  1. Use of false labels 
    Example: A product is marketed with a single environmentally friendly attribute, such as being free of a certain harmful substance, while ignoring other aspects where it is in no way sustainable. 

Now that we have looked at specific examples of greenwashing, let’s examine how best to avoid greenwashing in your marketing.

How to avoid greenwashing

The best customers are loyal customers who trust your company and want to order goods in your online shop several times. Many customers today are environmentally conscious, and therefore it pays to make sure that you only promise what you can keep when you market products as environmentally friendly or sustainable. This way, you strengthen your brand and at the same time set a good example for other companies.

Transparent communication

The best thing you can do to avoid greenwashing is to be as transparent as possible when marketing your products and communicating with your customers. Use the CMA’s guides and checklists, linked to above, and keep a close eye on the list of the 7 greenwashing sins.

Laws and guidelines regarding the marketing of sustainable products may vary from country to country. If you have an online shop that sells goods in several countries, it is important that you familiarise yourself with the laws of each country to ensure that you comply with all established requirements.

If you want to add a new sustainable product to your shop, you should examine the product’s entire production chain, and look at the supplier’s possible environmental certifications, to find out whether the product can be marketed as sustainable.

If you do your research and remain unsure, it is then better to avoid words like “sustainable”, “green”, or “natural” and instead write a detailed product description. When the customer can read details such as material composition, country of production, and possibly even more specific information about how the product is manufactured, they can more easily make an informed decision.

Detailed product descriptions will in many cases also increase your chances of selling, because the customer knows more about what they can expect when they open the package from your online shop.

Do you manufacture your products yourself? In this case, you naturally have control over how the actual production took place. Nonetheless, you still need to consider several other aspects. For example, if you sell handmade soaps, it is a good idea to investigate the origin of the individual ingredients in the soaps before you market them as sustainable or 100% organic. Have you used more ingredients that come from conventional agriculture in your soaps? Then the soaps might not be organic after all. According to current EU legislation, you can use the term “organic” for a product if at least 95% of all the product’s raw materials/ingredients (i.e. excluding added water) come from certified organic production. If you have imported ingredients from a lot of different countries, the soap is probably not sustainable either.

It may seem like an overwhelming task to avoid greenwashing, but the time you invest is well spent because you strengthen your brand trust by communicating with your customers in a transparent and credible way.

Reliable suppliers

If you have a business model that involves the use of external suppliers, such as dropshipping, you should research the individual suppliers before you start working with them. Once the collaboration has begun, it is also a good idea to maintain good and ongoing communication with the suppliers, so that they are aware of the requirements you place on the products they supply.

If sustainability is important to your company’s concept, you should make the same demands on the supplier that your customers make on you. With a good overview of the entire supply chain and production process, you are much better equipped to market your product range in a credible way.

Set a good example and increase your brand trust

Marketing of environmentally friendly and sustainable products and services has exploded in recent years. It is positive to see that so many companies are taking responsibility for the climate, working conditions, and the future of the planet, but navigating this type of marketing without falling into the greenwashing trap is not always easy. In this article, we have defined the concept of greenwashing, looked at examples and pointed out the importance of transparent communication. There is a lot to deal with, but if sustainability is something you prioritise in your business, your diligence will bear fruit in the form of customers who trust you and the knowledge that your business sets a good example for other companies.

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