Greenwashing: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Greenwashing is when a company attempts to appear environmentally-friendly when it really is not. In this lesson, you'll learn more about greenwashing and how it differs from greentailing, and see a few examples of greenwashing companies.

An Organic Experience?

When you think about using an organic shampoo and conditioner, what images come to mind? Flowers? Minerals? Herbal extracts? Sounds light, fresh and eco-friendly, right? What about ingredients like propylene glycol and D&C red no. 33? Sounds more like lab-generated chemicals, right? That's because that's exactly what they are, which is not at all the definition of ''organic hair care.''

Yet many companies that use lab-generated chemicals, including Clairol's Herbal Essences line, still tout their organic experience and naturally beautiful products to consumers with images of flowers, leaves, fruit and herbs on their product packaging. How is that possible? In a multimillion dollar industry like hair care, lots of brands are engaging in a not-so-savory business practice directed toward consumers called ''greenwashing.''

This lesson explains greenwashing, discusses how it differs from another ''green'' word (greentailing), and looks at a few other examples of this bad behavior in action.

What Is Greenwashing?

Make no mistake, greenwashing is a deceptive business practice. By definition, greenwashing is a company's attempt to mislead or deceive its customers on how its business, products or services interact with the environment. Companies that engage in greenwashing try to make themselves or their goods sound more eco-friendly or environmentally-safe than they actually are. They are appealing to consumers' desire to protect the environment, while actually failing at that very effort.

Businesses engage in greenwashing because it makes them look good (until they're caught, of course). They may claim their products are safer, all-natural or organic, or say that they save on electricity, emissions or water consumption. They might use colors and graphics in product packaging that suggest that a product is made up of all-natural and safe components, run advertisements that show how their company is committed to caring for the environment, or appear to participate in practices that are safer for the land, air and water. In cases of greenwashing, these claims are false.

You may be wondering why a company would engage in shady greenwashing practices. The answer is fairly straightforward. They appeal to consumers' beliefs and emotions in order to be perceived more favorably and thus generate more sales.

But don't get greenwashing confused with another ''green'' term you may have heard bandied about: greentailing. Greentailing is actually what greenwashing purports to be. It is a true focus on environmentally-responsible retailing (thus, the combination of the words ''green,'' or eco-friendly, and ''retailing,'' or sales). Businesses that engage in greentailing are genuinely concerned with environmental responsibility and ensuring that their business practices, products and services positively impact the environment around them.

One example of greentailing is the growing number of LEED-certified stores being opened by major retailers like Target and Best Buy. A LEED certification means that the building has conformed to certain parameters that make it more efficient and eco-friendly, such as using solar panels for energy or reducing waste. Other businesses show their commitment to being ''greentailers'' by reducing unnecessary packaging so it won't end up in landfills or eliminating plastic bags in favor of reusable ones.

Examples of Greenwashing

Spotting greenwashing can be a little tricky, but here are a few examples of companies who did it and got caught red-handed.

Volkswagen

One of the biggest news stories about an auto manufacturer in the past few years emerged when Volkswagen got into serious trouble for lying about its ''clean diesel'' vehicles, which they claimed were designed to reduce emission of harmful chemicals into the air. In fact, VW had been outfitting its vehicles with devices and software that would help the company cheat on emissions testing, making the company look more environmentally-conscious than it actually was. The greenwashing of Volkswagen led to numerous firings and court filings, and a host of other repercussions for the car company.

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