It seems everyone is making climate commitments: governments are building out electric vehicle infrastructure, businesses are releasing plans to become carbon neutral, and even chemical companies are marketing products made from biodegradable materials.
But is it all good or just another marketing scheme to profit off current trends?
Greenwashing has become a popular term over the past few decades and refers to misleading information or insincere intentions by companies and governments to appear more ecologically minded. This could come in different forms from a product line that comes in rough brown paper packaging and uses words like ‘sustainable’ or ‘natural’ or as direct commitments from a company stating their movement toward sustainable energy sources or reduced packaging.
Not all environmental efforts or commitments are ill intentioned and oftentimes companies start with the best intentions only to run into logistical problems which skew results away from the original sustainability goal. But how can we, as consumers and voters, make ecological choices that match our values?
Let’s dive into the common places where greenwashing can occur and where we can search for answers to our questions.
WHERE DOES GREENWASHING OCCUR?
Greenwashing can come as part of the promotion for any product, service, or plan. Here are a few examples to look out for:
Companies may claim their products were harvested from sustainable or renewable sources when the actual ethics are debatable. The furniture giant, Ikea, came under fire recently as the company is likely to have purchased illegally logged pine by Russian logging firms who repeatedly broke environmental laws.
This can also come into play in an actual product composition when claims are made about the amount of recycled material within packaging or the ability to recycle a product. Starbucks looked to eliminate single-use straws by introducing a new lid which eliminated the need for one. The improvement came under debate as the new lid may use more plastic than the original lid and straw combined. The increase is a concern given only about 8 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S.
Governments and businesses also get into trouble when they make false claims about plans to work toward zero emissions in order to win over customers, voters, or investors. One recent example includes ExxonMobil coming under criticism for advertising their work with algae-based biofuels when in fact the practice was a minor part of their 2025 company emissions targets.
HOW IS GREENWASHING REGULATED?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), regulates aspects of sustainability claims in its Green Guides, which are designed to help marketers set sustainability benchmarks to avoid misleading consumers. The Guides outline an array of sustainability criteria, such as requirements for stating an item is compostable, recyclable, carbon offset, or toxin-free. In some cases, the FTC also enforces the Green Guides. Between 2013 and 2020 a total of 39 environmental marketing enforcement claims were pursued by the FTC. A notable example includes the claim against Volkswagen for misleading consumers with their clean diesel technology.
HOW CAN WE EVALUATE SUSTAINABILITY CLAIMS OR GOALS?
1. Understand goal setting vs actions and results
Setting a commitment without a plan or tracking progress can often be a red flag. Many governments and businesses have felt the pressure to develop climate action plans to work toward zero emissions. If you question the commitment, do some research to see if any of the plans have been set into action and if so, evaluate the results. Some companies will include this on their website or in an annual report.
2. Check for certifications and seek to understand what they mean
If organizations hold certifications, research what this actually means and if it is a credible third party certifier. For more information on sustainability certifications, check out Sustainable America’s Ultimate Guide to Sustainability Certifications.
3. Use your voice online
Reach out to other consumers on forums like Reddit or Quora to see if people have credible insight into a company's claims.
4. Reach out to the company and ask questions
Try going directly to the source for more information. This can be done either directly through a customer support email or social media.
Companies are learning from their mistakes and trying to make an effort to lessen their impact on the environment. Investigating what this actually means can be empowering, as you will begin to look at packaging, branding, and environmental commitments in a new light.