We seem to be living in the era of green capitalism. Climate change is prompting businesses to make drastic changes in the way they operate.  Since customers now reward companies that improve their environmental performance, the race for the adoption of sustainable business practices has become very hot. Even investors who use to hanker after profits at the expense of other consideration are becoming serious about Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, the three factors for measuring sustainability and ethical impact of an investment in a business. Environmental stewardship has become the corporate talk of the century.

Amidst this frenzy, there’s a widespread abuse of the green revolution. What some companies are actually doing is greenwashing all in a bid to steal the trust of stakeholders and win their support. But the penalty for this is steep.

Increasingly, greenwashing is resulting in customers’ protests, product/service boycotts, litigations, extensive government scrutiny and damaged corporate reputations. It can be a big Public Relations nightmare. Doing everything to avoid the backlash is always the best option.

It is possible to be an unconscious victim of greenwashing. This could happen when you use words and images in your PR copies without understanding their implications on greenwashing. This article aims to ensure you don’t fall into that trap. It brings out 21 indicators of greenwashing you should look out for and remove from your PR messages. These indicators represent guidelines from Terrachoice, an environmental marketing company that uses a seven part criteria to judge environmental claims; Futerra, an international sustainability strategy and creative agency; and Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization with offices in 39 countries.

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the creation and dissemination of misleading information about an organization’s environmentally responsible behaviour in order to secure a good public image. This could range from outright lies, exaggerations to sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated claims.

Greenwashing is common in many industries from textile, beauty products, authomobile to food and pharmaceuticals. Some are done intentionally and others come from lack of understanding of the rules of environmental communication.

Indicators of Greenwashing

How do you spot greenwashing in your PR messages? Be guided by Terrachoice’s seven sins of greenwashing; Futerra’s ten signs of greenwashing and Greenpeace’s four criteria for identifying a greenwashed PR copy. These guidelines combined, capture the dubious environmental claims that can put you and your organization in trouble.

Terrachoice’s Seven Sins of Greenwashing

  • The sin of hidden trade-off – labeling a product as environmentally friendly based on a negligible set of attributes when other attributes are actually doing more harm to the environment.
  • The sin of no proof – making claims of doing good to the environment without any supporting evidence.
  • The sin of vagueness – using ambiguous, broad and poorly defined terms such as “eco-friendly”, “all natural” to describe a product that may actually contain harmful ingredients.
  • The sin of irrelevance – emphasizing an environmental issue that is unrelated to the product. For example, claiming that a product is CFC-free since CFC is banned.
  • The sin of lesser of two Evils – claiming to be greener than other products in its category when the category itself may not be environmentally friendly.
  • The sin of fibbing – Advertising something that is just not true. For example, claiming to be Energy Star Certified when that is not true.
  • The sin of worshiping false Labels – Claiming that a product has a third-party endorsement or certification when it does not.

Furerra’s Ten Signs of Greenwashing

These ten signs overlap with that of Terrachoice. Perhaps you should be the best judge.

  • Fluffy Language – using words and terms with no clear meaning, e.g. eco-friendly. 
  • Green product versus dirty company – such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers.
  • Suggestive pictures – using green images that indicate an unjustified green impact (e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes).
  • Irrelevant claims – emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is not green.
  • Best in class – declaring you’re slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.
  • Just not credible – “greening” a terrible product e.g. cigarettes.
  • Jargon – information that only a scientist could check or understand.
  • Imaginary friends – using a label that looks like third party endorsement except that it is made up.
  • No proof – it could be right but there is no evidence.
  • Outright lying – totally fabricated claims or data.

Greenpeace’s Four Criteria For Identifying Greenwashing

  • Dirty Business – Communicating an environmental initiative when the core business is unsustainable.
  • Ad duster – using advertising to exaggerate environmental benefits; spending more on the campaign than on the actual initiative.
  • Political Spin – Communicating environmental commitments while lobbying against environmental laws and regulations.
  • It’s the law, stupid – Communicating achievements that are required by law anyway.

Check your communication Channels

Dubious environmental claim could concern a product, an initiative, a person or a company. It could be used in channels such as photography, emails, news releases, events, speeches, packaging, exhibitions and advertorials. It could also be used in features articles, social media posts, interviews and websites. Endeavour to scan all your channels of communication to ferret them out.

Stakeholders may expect companies to improve their environmental performance, but they don’t expect lies and manipulations about such initiatives. They know that doing so is a barrier to the development of a sustainable economy which we all seek. They want you to say you are green only when you are green. You can prevent their wrath by paying sedulous attention to your PR messages, ensuring that no element of greenwashing can be spotted.