SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Businesses are facing more pressure to act on climate change and produce more eco-friendly and sustainable products for consumers. Corporations have unleashed a wave of environmental pledges, net-zero commitments, and sustainability certifications to convince consumers that they are helping the environment.

However, some say these claims are “greenwashing”– environmental marketing with no substance behind it. Greenwashing conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about how a company’s product is environmentally friendly.

“It’s a combination of the words green and brainwashing,” said Dr. Gawon Yun. Dr. Yun teaches supply chain management and sustainability at Missouri State University.

“You are giving the false belief to the consumer that your company is more sustainable than what they actually are.”

The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. During this time most consumers received their news from television, radio, and print media. The combination of limited public access to information and unlimited advertising could allow companies to present themselves as caring for the environment while engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.

Greenwashing is rampant in online marketing, according to a study by the European Union. The study found that many environmental claims on companies’ websites are exaggerated and false.

What should a consumer watch out for?

Vague language is a common telltale sign of greenwashing, said Dr. Yun. Brands will use words such as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” to make their business seem environmentally conscious. However, those words don’t mean much themselves, said Dr. Yun.

“How do we define eco-friendly? It’s very difficult to define. Does that mean there is no carbon footprint? How much is the water consumption that will occur from this product?

Greenwashing is pervasive in the fashion industry, too. According to a report by the campaign group Changing Markets Foundation, 59% of environmental claims made by European fashion brands, including Zara and H&M, are unsubstantiated.

According to a BBC article, a spokesperson for Zara said “[the report] has noted that Zara was the most comprehensive at substantiating and verifying its sustainability claims and that it clearly communicates material characteristics across its main collections”.

Brands will also highlight the sustainability of materials in their clothes by using words such as, “organic”, “natural”, or “recyclable”.

“Oftentimes consumers are confused with the word organic,” said Dr. Yun. “Organic does not necessarily mean it is sustainable. Often times when we produce an organic vegetable they tend to consume more water than the general process of producing fresh produce.”

A market survey of 20,000 people in five countries states that a third of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. 21% of people said they would choose brands if they highlighted their sustainability credentials more clearly on packaging and in their marketing.

Why are consumers susceptible to greenwashing?

Companies like to use positive language and other marketing strategies to attract more consumers, according to Dr. Yun. Using words like green is a marketing tactic because humans associate the color green with “joy” and “contentment”. The same is said for words with the prefix “bio” or “eco”. Consumers are making sustainability a priority for many consumers and studies show brands realize this.

What should consumers look out for?

Though it’s difficult to separate the companies that are greenwashing and those who are not there are some there are tips you can follow.

“[See] whether or not a company describes the specific impact of [a product] would be helpful,’ said Dr. Yun. A consumer can also look for companies who provide a sustainability report to check on how true their claims are.

Other tips include:

  • Understanding the lingo (carbon footprint, upcycle, organic, etc.)
  • Look for certifications
  • Avoid vague buzzwords
  • Check company ownership
  • Shop at vintage or consignment shops for clothing options