OPINION: Greenwashing is misleading, contradictory and harmful


Sarah Olson

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used by many companies in order to portray their products as eco-friendly.

As more people strive to make increasingly sustainable choices, some keywords consumers may look for when buying products include “eco-friendly,” “green” or “environmentally-friendly.” What consumers may not know is that many companies’ usage of these terms is oftentimes misleading due to a marketing tactic called greenwashing. 

Greenwashing is used by companies to deceive and persuade an audience that their products, manufacturing and goals benefit the environment. While numerous companies have made strides to reduce their carbon footprint, it is also important to detect patterns of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is regularly used for corporate benefit. The Guardian reported the practice dates back to the 1980s when oil company Chevron commissioned advertisements persuading the public about their environmental commitment. The advertisements eventually became the topic of a case study at Harvard Business school and proved that greenwashing is contradictory and deceiving. When Chevron created greener-looking commercials that included bears and butterflies, it distracted viewers from the immense damage oil companies cause to the environment.

Today, greenwashing is extremely common in the fast-fashion industry. In recent years, Zara and H&M created “sustainable” clothing lines named “Join Life” and “Conscious,” respectively. Both clothing lines have made some progress in regards to the environment, but a numerous amount of their claims are incredibly greenwashed. 

For example, according to Vogue, Zara aims to prioritize sustainability. However, The Rising claims only 2 out of 388 pages in Zara’s 2017 annual report covered sustainability, giving customers reason to doubt the authenticity of such marketing as several of these sustainability claims are greenwashed.

When companies use greenwashed claims, little to no evidence is used to support the claims. For example, according to Vogue Business, H&M’s “Conscious” clothing line claims that the clothing is made from “more sustainable materials” but never explains why these materials can benefit the environment. But because of “green” marketing, consumers may not even pay attention to such factors when the brand markets itself as sustainable. 

The issue with such marketing is that it puts an emphasis only on what is being done that appears “green,” allowing companies to do the bare minimum without creating solid change as they claim in their advertising. Additionally, greenwashing can make it easier to conceal harmful aspects of production, such as poor labor conditions, or environmental harm in the manufacturing of goods. 

While it is important to keep in mind that no organization or company can be fully sustainable, it is necessary to hold companies accountable when signs of greenwashing are evident. By staying educated about the true meaning of sustainability, it can become easier to make better and well-informed decisions and to detect patterns of greenwashing.