What is Greenwashing and How Do You Spot It?

pegs holding up paper with 'eco' 'bio' 'green' and 'natural' written on

You’ve probably heard the term Greenwashing before, but what is it, should you avoid companies that do it, and how do you spot greenwashing tactics? This post tells you everything you need to know.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts. It’s a deceitful marketing gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally-conscious brands.


The term was first coined in the 1980s in an essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In this essay, he criticized the hotel industry’s “save your towel” movement for preying on guests’ environmental sensibilities. While this movement was disguised as a way for guests to help hotels conserve water and save the planet, it essentially only cut down on laundry labor expenses for the hotel and made a minimal difference in water usage.

skincare products on store shelves

For people who want to do their bit for the environment, greenwashing is very frustrating, as finding and using alternatives already has its barriers without multi-billion pound companies using eco buzzwords to confuse consumers. This practice means consumers are distracted from other actually sustainable companies and products.

How to Spot Greenwashing

Okay, you know what it is, and why it’s bad – but how do you know when a company is using greenwashing tactics to target eco-conscious consumers?

1. Don’t Be Fooled by Branding

It’s easy to associate the colour green, plants, fruit, animals and images of the Earth as eco-friendly. That’s why they use them! This association will likely not be backed up by the practices. ‘Sensitive’ products often deploy the same tactics, with soft blankets and babies as the imagery involved whilst still using harsh chemicals.

2. Beware the Slogans

They will likely have a lot of greenspeak buzzwords such as ‘eco’, ‘vegan’, ‘natural’, ‘recycled’ and other vague terms designed to catch your attention in the copy of the product itself or its marketing.

Wording and slogans will be unevidenced, sometimes even irrelevant, such as advertising something as vegan when there would be no way to not be vegan. Often, they will highlight one particular benefit to distract from a negative, or use clever wording to make things sound better than they are – for example, saying “50% more recycled materials” could mean they’ve gone from 2% to 3% recycled materials.

3. Find Proof of Green Practices

It takes two minutes to do a quick Google search about the company’s proven values and sustainability practices. There’s even an app for that – Good On You rates over 2000 fashion brands for how ethical they are, Think Dirty scans barcodes to tell you about ingredients, and Ethy shares ethical enterprises that have been researched and vetted.

Brands will usually utilise selective disclosure, only sharing their greener practices without disclosing their less-than-green ones. For this reason, your research has to involve more than the company’s website. Remember – if a company is actually doing good for the environment, they won’t hide their certifications and other evidence.

4. See Through the Symbolics

Companies often make very public actions to draw attention to their more sustainable side. This will usually be a very minor action with great marketing that does little to improve their environmental impact as a whole.

Often, brands will change something small that looks more sustainable from the outside, but doesn’t improve (or even worsens) their footprint in the long run. For example, when Starbucks advertised their new cup lids that didn’t require straws, they failed to mention the fact that the new lids required more plastic than the old straws.

What’s the Difference Between Greenwashing and Green Marketing?

There are many great companies out there who are genuinely ethical, environmentally conscious and eco-friendly. They will be marketing their products as such, to encourage consumers to make the more sustainable choice. Greenwashing makes finding these companies difficult. Here’s what to look for when searching for green products or brands:

  • proven sustainable practices
  • minimal packaging
  • free of toxic ingredients
  • able to be recycled at home (or the company offers end-of-life recycling)
  • made of all/mostly recycled materials
  • good quality (will last a long time or can be reused)
  • natural rather than synthetic fragrances
  • claims are backed up by evidence
  • the company or product has certifications such as FairTrade
  • the company’s website has a clear section for sustainability and green practices
Case Studies of Greenwashing

Have you ever wondered why you can smell Lush shops from a mile away?

This is due to the use of potent parfums and parabens, which increase shelf life.

Lush’s marketing is all about using fresh ingredients, handmade products and paper packaging. This gives consumers the impression that it is an eco-friendly company with natural ingredients. In fact, only 65% of Lush products have plastic packaging, with only their clear plastic bottles recycable in your home bins. In their products, you’ll find very little organic ingredients, but lots of synthetic fragrance, dyes, mica, parabens, SLS and palm oil.

Let’s talk about McDonalds. In June 2018, the multi-billion dollar fast food chain made the switch from plastic straws to paper straws. However, eagle-eyed milkshake slurpers called them out as not actually being recyclable.

McDonald’s has since stressed the straws are made from recyclable materials, but current recycling infrastructure does not allow for them to be processed by recycling plants.

So what can you do next time you swoop in for a happy meal? Say no to straws and use your own reusable one.

Take a look at these handy silicone ones from The Silicone Straw Company for when you’re out and about.

Warning: the following image is distressing.

L’Oreal, which owns many other beauty brands, say they are committed to making as many products as possible vegan. This would suggest they’re against cruelty to animals, right? Let’s have a look at their policy.

In 1989, L’Oréal was able to end all testing of its products on animals, without making our products any less safe. Since March 2013, the Group has taken another decisive step: The Group no longer tests on animals, anywhere in the world, and does not delegate this task to others. An exception could be made if regulatory authorities required it for safety or regulatory purposes.


Did you spot the greenwashing in this policy?

The L’Oreal animal testing policy states they test their products on animals where required by law.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Required-by-law animal testing means that the brand is allowing animal testing to occur on their products due to various laws and regulations. These laws may apply to ingredients, formulations, or finished products. They could also happen pre-market (before the products are available to consumers) or post-market (after the products are available to consumers). At the moment, the only country that requires animal testing by law is China, meaning all L’Oreal has to do is refuses to sell their products in the Chinese market. Because they still sell products in China, it’s clear that they are more concerned with profits than animals.

The truth is that there are so many eco-friendly, cruelty-free and sustainable alternatives to all these greenwashed products.

With your new greenwashing-spotting skills, which products are you going to choose?

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