More and more companies are “going green” today. But, the growth of sustainable practices at work has also led to the rise of corporate greenwash. With this in mind, we’re exploring everything you need to know about greenwashing, so your teams can mitigate misleading environmental claims and promote sincere sustainability moving forward.
Everything You Need to Know About Greenwashing
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to when a company makes unsubstantiated or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of their business operations. This often involves spending significantly more resources on advertising false claims of being green than actually implementing sustainability efforts to do so.
Is Greenwashing Illegal?
The short answer is, yes: Greenwashing is not only highly unethical but illegal, too. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a set of Green Guides aiming to provide guidance on how companies can comply with the FTC Act when making green claims. Common types of greenwashing today include:
- Environmental imagery.
- Misleading labels.
- Irrelevant claims.
- Hidden trade-offs.
- Lesser of two evils.
- Bait and switch.
Ultimately, these regulations and guides are meant to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices such as paying more for goods that falsely claim to be green. And if you think this isn’t a major issue today — think again. A global sweep of randomly selected websites conducted by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) found that 40% of them appeared to be using greenwashing techniques, potentially breaking consumer law.
What do these tactics look like? Greenwashing might appear in the form of:
- Unclear language and vague claims (i.e., terms like “green” or “sustainable”) without evidence to substantiate the assertions.
- Hidden or neglected information (i.e., a business’s carbon emissions or product’s pollution levels).
- Custom ego labels and logos not associated with an accredited organization.
What Are the General Principles for Authentic Sustainability Claims?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, any sustainability claims your organization makes should adhere to the following principles:
- The environmental message should be clear and prominent.
- Comparative claims should clearly present the foundation for the comparison.
- The sustainable attribute should be clearly tied to an organization’s product, service, packaging or portion of any of these.
- A claim should note exaggerate the environmental benefit, either explicitly or by implication.
What Are Common Examples of Greenwashing Today?
Unfortunately, misleading claims about sustainability are still more prevalent than you might think: Almost 70% of U.S. executives admit that their companies are guilty of greenwashing, according to a report from Gitnux. And as if that’s not alarming enough, as many as two-thirds of business leaders globally questioned whether their environmental efforts were genuine.
For a better understanding of just how common false environmental claims can be, let’s take a closer look at global corporate greenwashing in action:
In 2021, the fast-fashion brand H&M was called out by the Changing Markets Foundation for insincere sustainable fashion claims. While this might not sound completely out of the left field for a fast fashion company, the sheer amount of greenwash is startling: 96% of environmental claims from the company didn’t hold up — compared to 60% across the industry.
In response to these accusations, H&M has declared a commitment to becoming fully transparent about its carbon footprint and environmental impact by 2030. The company is set to publish a list of suppliers and disclose the true environmental effect of each product so the public can keep the business accountable moving forward.
A few years back, the airline Ryanair faced accusations from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for false low-emissions claims. This wasn’t just any claim, but a declaration to the public that the company was Europe’s “lowest emissions airline.” Because this assertion was essentially made up, the ASA quickly banned the ads that promoted this lie.
The German motor vehicle manufacturer, Volkswagen, found itself in a greenwashing scandal after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered its federal emissions tests were misleading. In fact, Volkswagen had installed software into its diesel vehicles to detect emissions testing scenarios, making them seem less harmful to the environment than they actually were.
The EPA reported that these engines emitted up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than the EPA allowed. The company subsequently admitted to cheating on these tests and the CEO resigned not long after.
As people across the world try to live more sustainable lives, cases like these have quickly worn down consumer trust. This has made it essential for organizations to attentively avoid misleading claims and boost sustainability initiatives.
Spotting False Sustainability Claims — Avoid Greenwashing in Your Business
Here are a few ways consumers and companies alike can spot greenwashing before making a purchase or choosing a partner:
- Look for misleading natural imagery: Companies that are guilty of greenwashing often use pictures of plants, animals, leaves, trees and even simply the color green to make a product appear more eco-friendly.
- Pay attention to wording: If an organization is throwing around vague terms and slogans like “eco-friendly.” “natural” or “green”, these might be buzzwords without substance. Be sure to look for evidence that supports any claims.
- Familiarize yourself with recognized certifications: Third-party certifications can provide verifiable evidence that a business is environmentally responsible. Recognizing common and trustworthy seals can help you filter out products more quickly (i.e., USDA Organic certification, Green Seal or Non-GMO Project Verified).
- Check for transparency: Be wary of products that make it difficult to find information about a brand’s eco-impact. This information should be available via the label, product description or website.
How To Prevent Greenwashing Moving Forward
While intentional greenwashing is clearly present, keep in mind that sustainability claims can often be a fine line for any company to walk. That means an honest attempt at green marketing could still come across as inadvertent greenwashing.
Here are a few ways you can thoughtfully avoid greenwashing:
- Ensure your environmental claims are clear and understandable: You can mitigate greenwashing by including detailed information, such as specific units of measurement, or using standardized terms and certifications that clearly back up any environmental claims.
- Be prepared to back up sustainable claims with data or evidence: Implementing processes that ensure you have access to data or evidence that proves your sustainability claims will be essential moving forward. This might include verifiable metrics to demonstrate progress or reporting on environmental impact.
- Establish legitimacy with certifications or third-party seals: When certifications are involved, there is no greenwashing. By nature, a third-party seal will confirm any environmental claims you’ve made about your company’s product, service or packaging.
- Commit to transparency and accurate reporting: Being continuously open about your organization’s sustainability efforts and achievements helps you build trust with wary modern customers. You can achieve this by providing clear and detailed information about your environmental impact and long-term plans to reduce this footprint.
- Make sure images on ads or packaging aren’t misleading: Avoid using natural imagery such as trees, plants or the color green to imply your product is environmentally friendly if that’s not the case.
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Taking Steps to Support Sustainability
More sustainable workplaces are the future and avoiding greenwashing is only the first step. Consider these five quick tips to help your organization start building an eco-friendly work environment:
- Establish clear sustainability goals and foster a plan to help you reach them effectively.
- Install motion-activated light switches, turn down the brightness of monitor screens and turn off all electronics at the end of the workday to minimize energy consumption.
- Invest in reusable dishes and utensils for your breakroom.
- Clearly label your trash, recycling and compost bins to give your workforce the best chance of success.
- Leverage digital tools to foster a paperless work environment.
At Kdan Mobile, we’re committed to not only creating a more sustainable workplace ourselves, but also helping other organizations do the same. Our personal sustainability goals include achieving carbon neutrality and reducing our operation’s environmental footprint. We’ve also created digital solutions that empower companies to build a paperless office.
Ready to boost your environmental efforts in a straightforward way, while introducing more streamlined digital processes? See what the PDF Reader and DottedSign from Kdan Mobile can do for your business.
Environmental sustainability is the responsibility of businesses, individuals and governments to conserve our natural resources and protect our ecological health. Kdan Mobile is determined to rise to the moment, embedding environmental sustainability into our mission and solutions. Learn more about Kdan Mobile’s commitment to sustainability.
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