I remember when I heard the term “green” for the first time. As a consumer, I felt empowered. I was motivated to support companies that prioritized people and planet – not just profit. As a marketer, I saw this as a breakthrough opportunity to reach new consumers and shift behaviors toward more sustainable options.
Yet, as the demand for green, eco-friendly, organic and all-natural products continued to rise, the water became muddied by companies making false claims in the name of sustainability. From slight exaggerations to blatant lies, greenwashing has sought to mute the efforts of environmentally-conscious marketers for decades.
The solution: education.
As societal awareness of environmental issues grows, marketers will need to educate their teams on the dangers of greenwashing – in all its shades – to protect consumers, maintain trust and safeguard the integrity of the profession.
Greenwashing describes the intentional or unintentional practice of making misleading, unsubstantiated or false environmental claims about a company, product, service or policy. Gradually, we are seeing the definition evolve to include additional types of greenwashing:
- Greenlighting: Spotlighting a green feature – no matter how small – to distract from unsustainable practices.
- Greenlabeling: Misleading the public by labeling a product as environmentally friendly.
- Greenhushing: Underreporting sustainability performance to avoid greenwashing accusations.
- Greenshifting: Blaming consumer demand for a company’s unsustainable practices, instead of taking accountability.
- Greenrinsing: Regularly changing ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets, parameters or deadlines before they are achieved to avoid scrutiny.
As the definition continues to expand, it can make modern greenwashing difficult to spot. Even well-intentioned marketers and business leaders can fall short by sharing environmental claims that are unverified, poorly defined or irrelevant.
Best Practices to Avoid Greenwashing
To accurately communicate sustainability claims and avoid the trap of greenwashing, there are seven immediate steps marketers can take:
- Avoid vague language: Avoid broad and unclear terms; state whether a sustainability claim refers to part or all of a product, service or policy.
- Avoid misleading symbols: Avoid colors, pictures, icons, sounds and layouts that imply a heightened degree of sustainability.
- Avoid jargon: Avoid language that is not easily understood by consumers.
- Avoid unverified language: Avoid making unsubstantiated environmental claims. All claims should come from trusted sources and be easily accessible and verifiable.
- Avoid selective disclosure: Avoid highlighting select sustainability performance measures; always provide complete statistics and background.
- Avoid irrelevant language: Avoid claims that are true but unimportant to the environmental performance of a product, service or policy.
- Avoid perfection: Avoid perfection, in favor of honesty. Transparency improves trust and minimizes public criticism.
The Green Guides
For marketers navigating the complexities of sustainability, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to be a trusted voice. In 1992, the FTC issued the Green Guides to address the growing threat of greenwashing and to provide marketers with a resource to avoid misleading phrases, terminology and practices.
Though the Green Guides have gone through several revisions, the guide was last updated in 2012. In that time, the market has experienced an influx of deceptive marketing and advertising.
To address the oversaturation, the FTC is set to release an updated version of the Green Guides later this year. While the FTC intended to issue guidance in 2022, the agency extended the comment period through April 2023 due to the volume of requests from individuals, businesses and environmental groups looking to provide feedback. The revised guide will reflect a wide range of public input for terms like “net zero,” “low carbon,” and “organic,” as well as updated guidelines for marketers when making ESG and sustainability claims. Similar to their 2012 rollout, the FTC is projected to host several workshops to educate and gather comment from the public – starting with a recycling workshop in May.
As we work together to raise awareness about key environmental issues, it is important to acknowledge the environmental groups, sustainable business leaders and green marketers leading the effort to reduce the spread of greenwashing. If left unchecked, greenwashing threatens to discredit years of real environmental progress and further erode consumer trust.
With stronger regulations and guidance just a few months way, marketers have an important role to play in protecting consumers. Our commitment to the planet is extension of our commitment to the people who inhabit it – and neither can afford to wait.