person holding a green plant

In today’s episode I want to talk about greenwashing. Let’s discuss the definition, some examples of greenwashing, what the consequences of greenwashing are, and how to identify it!

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  • Sustainable (adj) – causing, or made in a way that causes, little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
    • The website encourages sustainable fashion through swapping.
  • Environmentally friendly (adj) – not harmful to the environment, or trying to help the environment.
    • We will use environmentally friendly energy sources.
  • Marketing (n) – a job that involves encouraging people to buy a product or service.
    • He would like a career in marketing.
  • To mislead (v) – to cause someone to believe something that is not true.
    • He has admitted misleading the police.
  • -Conscious (suffix) – used after nouns and adverbs to mean “knowing about and worried about a particular thing” or “thinking that something is important”
    • We appeal to health-conscious consumers.  
  • Biodegradable (adj) – able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful.
    • Biodegradable packaging helps to limit the amount of harmful chemicals released into the environment.
  • Certification (n) – the act of providing an official document as proof that something has happened or been done
    • Fairtrade is a certification that guarantees producers in the developing world are paid a fair price for their crops.
  • Consumer (n) – a person who buys goods or services for their own use
    • The new rates will affect all consumers, including businesses

What is Greenwashing?

In our modern world, issues like environmental sustainability, climate change, and global warming are constant and ever present. In order to protect the environment into the future, and preserve what we have today, pressure is growing on governments, countries, companies, and individuals to be greener.

People want to be more environmentally friendly. They want to buy more sustainable products and use more sustainable services. There are many consumers who will choose a more sustainable product if it is competing against a less sustainable product, and some people will even pay more money to be greener.

Companies, therefore, have a reason to become green and sell green products. There are customers who want to buy more environmentally friendly products and who expect the companies to offer these things.

For companies, the answer is simple – make more sustainable products to attract more customers and prove they are a green compan y… right? Well… not always. And this is why we need to talk about greenwashing.


The Defintion of Greenwashing

Greenwashing, according to the dictionary defintion, is “the act of providing the public or investors with misleading or outright false information about the environmental impact of a company’s products and operations.”

In other words, rather than actually make their products more sustainable, they could pretend they are more sustainable. They could make them look or appear more environmentally friendly by using misleading information, claims with no evidence, or marketing tricks.

People want natural products; we want healthy snacks and food; we want our clothes to be free of chemicals; we want our plastics to be recyclable; and we want everything we buy to use fewer natural resources. The problem is that it can be expensive and inconvenient for companies to achieve this.

Greenwashing can also be used to cover up less sustainable parts of the company or business. Customers and investors want to spend their money on environmentally sound businesses… and greenwashing is a way for companies to attract these people without making major changes to their business plans.

Of course, some companies are green companies. They do make an effort to be as environmentally friendly as possible. And they can prove this with evidence and facts. But when a company spend more money and time of advertising their brand as “green” instead of actually becoming more sustainable – this is known as green washing.

Sometimes greenwashing may be unintentional, but often is purposefully designed and carried out by marketing and PR teams.

One of the most famous recent examples of greenwashing comes from the car company Volkswagen. They used a special device in their cars which would reduce emissions during testing, but not work in real driving conditions. They then used this information to promote the low-emission cars… even though this was a lie!

Tyson, a meat company in America, lied about using drug-free animals; Coca Cola was criticised for marketing natural sugars (yes it is natural… but it is still sugar and not healthy); and the oil company BP made a big campaign based on putting solar panels on their building (while selling fossil fuels).

History of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is connected to the emergence of environmental awareness in the 20th century. In the 1960s and 70s, a growing number of people became concerned about the impact humans were having on the world and the environment. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 and books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which looked at the impact of pesticides and was published in 1962, helped raise awareness.

As public concern for the environment grew, companies began to see the potential for marketing their products as environmentally friendly. Companies started to use terms like eco-friendly or green without any scientific or factual evidence.

The term greenwashing has an interesting origin. In 1986, the environmentalist Jay Westerveld wrote an essay criticizing the hotel industry. Hotels had been encouraging guests to reuse towels – and they had been doing by claiming it was more environmentally friendly. The truth, however, is that it was a cost-cutting decision not an environmental one. Hotels would push the idea of being environmentally friendly, but at the same time not recycle or use inefficient lighting.

The term greenwashing quickly became adopted to refer to all instances of companies promoting misleading environmental claims. And more and more companies have been engaging in such practices.

Consequences of Greenwashing

One of the primary consequences of greenwashing is that it misleads consumers into thinking they are making environmentally conscious choices, when in fact they are not. For example, a company may claim that their product is made from recycled materials, when in reality, only a small percentage of the product contains recycled materials. By making false claims, companies can sell products that are not environmentally friendly at a higher price.

Greenwashing can also create a cycle of misinformation and harm the environment. A company may promote its product as being biodegradable or compostable, but if the product is not properly disposed of, it can harm the environment. Consumers who are misled into thinking that the product is safe for the environment may not dispose of it properly, leading to additional harm. A company in Australia, for instance, marketed their plastic bags as biodegradable when they actually could only be degraded in a specialist machine.

Greenwashing is not just harmful to consumers; it can also have significant consequences for the environment. The false claims made by companies engaging in greenwashing can lead to the continued use of environmentally harmful practices, ultimately causing further damage to the environment.

A company may claim that their product is made from sustainable materials, but if the materials are not truly renewable or if they are not sourced in an environmentally responsible way, they can still harm the environment.

Greenwashing can also lead to the continuation of wasteful production practices. Companies may claim to be environmentally friendly, but they may not be making the necessary changes to their production processes to reduce waste.

Moreover, greenwashing can also contribute to a lack of action on the part of companies to make real and meaningful changes to their practices. Companies that engage in greenwashing may not see the need to invest in sustainability initiatives, such as using renewable energy sources, reducing waste, and using environmentally responsible materials.

Greenwashing can have a negative impact on consumer trust in companies. When companies make false or misleading claims about their environmental impact, it undermines the trust that consumers have in the company. This can lead to long-term consequences for companies, as consumers may become less likely to purchase their products or support their business in the future.

One of the ways greenwashing can cause a loss of trust in companies is by creating confusion about what is truly environmentally friendly. When companies make false claims about their products or practices, it can be difficult for consumers to know what is truly sustainable. This confusion can make it difficult for consumers to make informed choices and can lead to a lack of confidence in companies and the products they offer.

Greenwashing can also contribute to a general cynicism about sustainability claims made by companies. If consumers become aware that companies are making false claims about their environmental impact, they may become sceptical of all sustainability claims made by companies. This can lead to a lack of support for truly sustainable products and practices and a general apathy towards environmental issues.

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How to Spot Greenwashing

Common Tactics

To avoid being misled by greenwashing, it is important to be aware of the common tactics used by companies to make false or misleading claims about their environmental impact. Some of the most common greenwashing tactics include:

Vagueness: Vague or undefined terms, such as “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” are often used by companies without providing any specific information about what makes their product environmentally friendly.

Half-Truths: A half-truth is a claim that are technically true, but misleading. For example, a company may claim that their product is made from recycled materials, but the recycled content may be so small that it has little impact on the environment.

Irrelevant Claims: Companies may make claims that are not directly related to environmental impact. For example, a company may claim that their product is biodegradable, but the biodegradable materials used may not be compostable and may still harm the environment.

False Labels: Using false or misleading labels, such as “organic” or “carbon neutral,” is a common tactic to make products appear more environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing Symbols: Companies may use symbols or images that are associated with environmentalism, such as leaves or the recycling symbol, to make their products appear more environmentally friendly.


Tips for Identifying Greenwashing

To avoid being misled by greenwashing, it is important to be able to identify it when you see it.

Before making a purchase, research the company and their environmental claims. Check if the company has a sustainability report or any other information about their environmental impact. You could also look for certification or labelling that verifies a product’s environmental impact. Certifications such as Fairtrade, Energy Star, or Rainforest Alliance provide assurance that a product meets certain environmental standards.

Read the fine print on product labels and packaging. This can help you identify vague or undefined terms, such as “eco-friendly” or “sustainable.” And if you are unsure about a company’s environmental claims, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Contact the company or check their website for more information.

Consider the context in which the product is being sold and the company making the claims. A product that is marketed as environmentally friendly may not be as sustainable as it claims if the company has a history of environmental violations or poor environmental practices.

And if a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your instincts and be sceptical of exaggerated or false claims about a product’s environmental impact.

However, the problem of greenwashing is not one that individuals can tackle on their own. To truly combat greenwashing, organizations and institutions must also play a role. Organisations should be able to enforce standards and punish companies found greenwashing, educate customers, and support sustainable products and practices.

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Final Thought

Greenwashing is an important topic that everyone should be able to understand and recognise. In our modern world, companies are trying hard to sell products to environmentally conscious consumers… and often engage in greenwashing as a tactic.

Hopefully, after listening to this episode, you can now understand the concept of greenwashing, identify it, and avoid falling for it!

Can you think of any other examples of greenwashing?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “210. What is Greenwashing? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hello All, in the subject of let’s say “greenwasing” I came across funny sentence: Let the children believe in Santa, since you believe in creams for cellulite and no one teaches you from this misled … In addition to eco- we also have bio- and vege-

  2. Hello everybody, we live in a world that is plenty of traps and there are a lot of professional profiles thar work just only for finding a way to earn money by misleading customers. We are led to buy organic products thinking they are healthier by paying an extra cost but are we sure they are organic? Advertising is the oldest and best way to deceive people and the globalization rised that phenomena.
    The result is that noone is sure about what is eating or buying and that approach makes people increasingly distrustful. The easier is the life the better we live!

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