Greenwashing Explained

Greenwashing Explained


You may have seen a recent IKEA advert showcasing their sustainability credentials. While it is great to see big brands showing an awareness for environmental issues and climate change, the IKEA ad is a classic example of a practice called greenwashing. In this blog, we’ll be explaining why companies like IKEA portray themselves as sustainable while at the same time being involved in highly unethical and anti-green practices. 

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is essentially a marketing strategy aiming to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products and aims are environmentally friendly and therefore better. These companies, while attempting to market as sustainable, aren’t actually making any sustainable changes to their production. 

“Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be 'green' through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”
- Business Insider, 2013

Greenwashing is particularly popular among fast fashion brands who use this tactic to convey a false impression or provide misleading information on how their new lines of clothing are more environmentally sound and sustainable. Some of the best known examples of such fake sustainability initiatives include brands like H&M and Zara. 

In 2019, Swedish fashion giant H&M released its ‘Conscious Collection’, including leather alternatives made from (technically) biodegradable fruit fibres. However, the faux leather also contains plastic and petroleum-based agents that essentially offset any potential positive environmental impact as the material is not biodegradable. On top of that, to qualify for their ‘Conscious Collection’, a product must contain at least 50% sustainable materials - but what about the other 50%?! Despite making an effort to appear more environmentally friendly by using some eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester in some products, the majority of H&M garments are still made from unsustainable materials and the brand itself operates under an extremely unethical fast fashion business model. The brand also provides no evidence of being on track to meeting their self-set target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chain. 

Like H&M, fast fashion pioneer Zara has also recently discovered the marketing power of making sustainability claims. The main issue with their list of environmental goals is the lack of transparency which makes it hard to determine how impactful their sustainability goals can really be. Just like H&M, Zara’s ‘sustainable’ garments are such a small proportion of their products that it’s impossible to make a meaningful change. Most importantly, these brands are still supporting the inherently unsustainable mass consumerism that makes fast fashion so detrimental for the planet.

And then there’s IKEA: The Swedish furniture giant is the largest buyer of wood on the planet, consuming 21 million cubic metres of wood in 2019 alone. In 2020, it was discovered that IKEA was selling products made from wood illegally felled in the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine, a national park area that is home to endangered species such as bears and lynx. While other parts of IKEA’s production process are arguably more sustainable, such as its use of organic cotton, its palm oil policy and its positive approach to banning toxic pollutants, the company is still far from being able to claim it is a sustainable company. TV ads like their 2021 “Fortune favours the frugal” ad are thus clearly misleading and can be seen as an example of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is all about misdirecting consumers by showing them one thing that distracts them from what is really going on. It is essentially a deceitful advertising gimmick used to mislead consumers who believe they are buying goods from an environmentally conscious brand. 

The reason greenwashing exists is because there are no specific regulations as to what classifies as sustainable. It is therefore unfortunately up to the consumer to fact check the company's sustainability claims for themselves in order to avoid being greenwashed. 

Big fashion brands like H&M or Zara are often guilty of greenwashing. [Source: Unsplash/Claudio Schwarz]

How to spot and avoid greenwashing.

We live in a critical time where more and more people care about the environmental impact and the ethics of the products they buy. It is therefore really important to be able to identify instances of greenwashing to avoid becoming a victim of these companies’ marketing strategies when all you really wanted was to do your part to protect the environment.

Here are some greenwashing red-flags to look out for:

  1. The company talks about sustainability in very vague terms and fluffy language
    An example would be a company stating “We’re eco-friendly” but then not including any information to back this claim up. Claims such as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘more sustainable’ also do not have a clearly defined meaning and are therefore very vague. A good rule of thumb is to be wary of anything loudly advertised as eco-friendly, especially by large brands.
  2. The company only has a specific line or a few items that are sustainable
    Companies such as H&M will try to get a “halo-effect” from promoting select collections that are made from sustainable materials, such as the Conscious Collection. However, despite this initiative, the company’s core business model remains ethically and environmentally unsustainable.
  3. Use of suggestive pictures
    Companies often overuse the colour green when trying to appear more sustainable and they’ll likely use images in their marketing campaign that give an (unjustified) green impression.
  4. Jargon that only a scientist could understand
    This is especially common in the food and cosmetics sector and is a classic strategy to cover up the company’s unethical and unsustainable practices behind fancy, eco-conscious sounding words.
  5. “Best-in-class” boasts
    If a company loudly declares they are greener than another company, or the cleanest company in the game, except the rest is pretty terrible and they are only a slightly better. 
  6. The company doesn’t partake in activism outside of selling their brand
    They’ll emphasise the tiny little green attribute when everything else is anti-green, such as fashion brands highlighting the use of a sustainable material for one particular clothing line but not taking any other environmental precautions in their entire business model.

Even considering these warning signs, it can still be really hard to tell when a company is using greenwashing, as the whole point of their marketing strategy is to make customers believe their sustainability claims. The best thing you can do to protect yourself against being greenwashed is to do your research before you purchase anything. 

Here are a few tips on how you can find out whether a company really is sustainable or not. 

  1. Check the company’s website
  2. Check for third-party certification
  3. Check recent news and articles related to the company
  4. Read reviews of the products to see if they are good quality and last a long time
  5. Contact the company directly and ask what sustainable measures they have in place


What is the difference between Greenwashing and Green Marketing?

There is a fine line between green marketing and greenwashing. The difference is that, unlike greenwashing, green marketing is when companies sell products that are legitimately environmentally positive. Green marketing is generally honest and transparent, and it means that a product meets the following criteria:

  1. Manufactured in a sustainable fashion
  2. Free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances
  3. Able to be recycled and/or is produced from recycled materials
  4. Made from renewable materials
  5. Does not use excessive packaging
  6. Designed to be repairable rather than disposable

Truly green companies will usually share transparent information about their entire production process on their website and will emphasise the importance of only buying what you need and using it for a long time. 

[Source: Unsplash/Cherie Birkner]

What does the future hold?

In the last decade, many people have woken up to the fact that the world as we live in it now is not sustainable. Luckily, this global green awakening is causing a shift in how companies do business. As the world increasingly embraces green practices, corporate actors are quick to jump on the bandwagon of sustainability, and understandably so: research has shown that 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand and that figure jumps to 73% among millenials. It is great to see that consumers are becoming more eco-conscious and are wanting to actively support green brands. In order to do so, it is important to purchase from businesses that are truly working to be as sustainable as possible and not be tricked by meaningless marketing campaigns of big brands.
While there are many fantastic examples of truly transparent and sustainable companies, the flip side is brands abusing the eco-consciousness trend for their own profit. That is why it is so important, as a consumer, not to become a victim of greenwashing and to make sure to always double check a company’s sustainability claims, especially if they seem vague or too good to be true. In the end, every purchase you make has an impact. By consciously choosing sustainable brands, you have the power to shape a more sustainable future. 


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