Greenwashing Tactics Companies Are Trying to Trick You With

Derek Ma Mar 28, 2024
7 People Read
Table of Contents
  1. Greenwashing Examples:
  2. Environmental Imagery:
  3. Hidden Trade-offs:
  4. Irrelevance:
  5. Vagueness:
  6. Lesser of two evils:
  7. Outright lies:

There is a growing problem of falsely labeled and misleading “green” and “sustainable” products and advertisements.

Words such as “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are common environmental marketing buzzwords.

Take the word “eco-friendly” for example, it can sometimes be a deceptive general claim since the term can be reasonably interpreted in a variety of ways.

As sustainable and environmental products become more and more popular, marketing companies are increasingly using these “buzzwords” to appeal to consumers.

Companies can make eco-friendly claims that are warranted or unwarranted. And when a company misleads and makes unwarranted sustainable claims, they are greenwashing.

You might already know of some examples.

Greenwashing Examples:

Like Volkswagen's emission cheating scandal of 2015, where Volkswagen admitted to rigging 11 million of its own “clean” diesel cars with devices intended to activate emission controls during laboratory emission testing.

Or the 2019 class-action lawsuit against Nestle’s “sustainably sourced cocoa beans."

Contrary to the “sustainable” claim, this key ingredient actually helped contribute to massive deforestation in West Africa. On another note, the lawsuit also claimed that these farms used child and slave labor.

While most greenwashing practices are not as high profile and blatant as these ones, a good majority are difficult to identify and are considered in a legal grey area.

“Corporations are falling over themselves to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more difficult to tell the difference between companies that are dedicated to making a difference and those that use a green facade to hide their not-so-eco-friendly motives.” – The Scientific American

So what common greenwashing practices should I look out for?

There are six common greenwashing practices to be wary about.

Environmental Imagery:

When a product or packaging uses images of leaves, animals, and nature or the visual equivalent of environmental buzzwords.

These brands often overuse the color green to promote the product and try to subliminally imply that these products are beneficial to the earth.

Hidden Trade-offs:

When a product is suggested as “green” or “sustainable” based on a single environmental attribute. 

For example, imagine a product that highlights how it is reusable or recyclable. However, the product is produced using heavy amounts of fossil fuels and leads to massive deforestation.

While it is great that the product is recyclable and reusable, it is important to look at the complete picture of a product when determining whether it can be considered sustainable and eco-friendly.


Making environmental claims that may be truthful but are unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking more sustainable products. 

A notable example of an irrelevant claim relates to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – a principal contributor to ozone depletion. 

Since CFCs have been legally banned for almost 30 years, there are no products in the U.S. that are manufactured with them. 

Nevertheless, there have been several individual products that present CFC-free claims as an apparently unique environmental advantage.


A claim that is poorly defined or not elaborated upon so that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer. 

For example, “chemical free,” “non-toxic,” and “all-natural” are considered vague claims.

Water is a chemical, and all living things are made up of chemicals. In fact, nothing is truly “chemical free.” 

Everything can be toxic in enough dosages. For example, water, oxygen, and salt can all be potentially hazardous at certain levels. 

Lastly, arsenic is technically “all-natural,” along with uranium, formaldehyde, and mercury.”

Lesser of two evils:

Any claims that are true within a product category but are only made to divert consumers’ attention from any greater environmental impacts of the category. 

Terra Choice uses the example of “organic cigarettes” or “green pesticides,” which both are oxymoronic.

Outright lies:

Making environmental claims that are simply false. This includes false eco-labels and certifications. It can also be a product that claims to be certified when they are actually not.

How to protect yourself against Greenwashing?

There are current regulations that combat these false advertisements. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) monitors environmentally-themed marketing for possible deceptive claims.

As a good rule of thumb, a product claiming to be “eco-friendly” without saying why it is, is generally considered a deceptive environmental benefit claim.

One of the most effective ways to avoid getting “greenwashed” is to educate yourself about greenwashing practices and the products you buy.

People need to learn who is truly green and who is just trying to look that way to make more profits. Look beyond advertising claims, read ingredient lists, and look for special certifications and/or labels.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standards.

Look for labels and certifications that show a given product has been vetted by a reliable third party. However, some companies like SC Johnson self-certify through their SCJ Greenlist program. Their program has won awards from environmental and industry groups, so use your best judgment.

If some eco-labels are suspect or if you see one you don’t recognize, look it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+ different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors.

Ecolabel Index is a free online resource. It provides information about which company or group is behind each certification and whether independent third-party assessments are required.

Final Thoughts about Greenwashing

The phenomenon of greenwashing is a growing concern in today's society as more and more companies attempt to portray themselves as environmentally friendly without actually taking concrete actions toward sustainability.

It is evident that greenwashing not only deceives consumers but also undermines the efforts of genuinely sustainable businesses and hinders progress toward a greener future.

Ultimately, the fight against greenwashing requires collective action from consumers, businesses, and regulators to ensure a greener and more sustainable future.

By promoting transparency, fostering innovation, and rewarding genuine sustainability efforts, we can create a marketplace that truly prioritizes the environment and meets the needs of conscious consumers.

It is time to move beyond greenwashing and work towards a world where sustainability is not just a marketing buzzword but an integral part of every business's ethos. With greater awareness and collective action, we can make a significant impact and pave the way for a greener and more sustainable future. 

Table of Contents
  1. Greenwashing Examples:
  2. Environmental Imagery:
  3. Hidden Trade-offs:
  4. Irrelevance:
  5. Vagueness:
  6. Lesser of two evils:
  7. Outright lies: