Birds eye view

What is greenwashing, and how do you avoid it?

By Naomi Linturn, Digital Account Manager

What is greenwashing?

We are all doing our part to be more sustainable in our marketing and advertising world at an individual, company and industry level. But how do we ensure we’re not overpromising or misleading stakeholders or consumers?

How do we ensure that we aren’t greenwashing?

The term ‘greenwash’ is defined as ‘to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is’.

Essentially, greenwashing is a term used to describe brands or manufacturers that are misleading or deceiving people via unsubstantiated claims to make them believe that a company is environmentally friendly or has a positive impact on the environment.

We may mainly associate greenwashing with manufacturers, with big players in the oil or aviation industry quickly coming to mind by promoting misleading labelling, irrelevant imagery of the environment and incorrect terminology or claims. A couple of simple examples are as follows:

  • A fast fashion brand develops a paid campaign to promote a new sustainable range because the items are made with recycled materials. However, the brand continues to mass-manufacture most items not made from recycled or sustainable materials.
  • A food brand claims in its ads that its products are ‘100% compostable’; however, the products do not actually decompose in a household compost bin, and more specific conditions are needed for this process.

Naturally, any progress towards sustainability is positive, and we want to encourage brands and manufacturers to take steps in the right direction, and this will take both time and money. However, small changes mustn’t mislead consumers into believing the whole brand is sustainable.

It’s also important to note that greenwashing isn’t just down to manufacturers, but the advertisers too, particularly given that we’re most exposed to it through paid marketing efforts.

Why is it important to avoid greenwashing?

Firstly, it’s unethical! Nobody wants to mislead consumers for profit deliberately. Both brands and advertisers know the moral implications of greenwashing. Given the climate crisis we’re facing, we need to be taking steps to drive real positive change and not allow consumers to believe in a product that isn’t sustainable.

Secondly, your ad risks being banned. The UK Advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, regulates all ads, and any misleading communications will be scrutinised.

The ASA adheres to Ad Codes written by the Committees of Advertising Practice. The CAP Code states, ‘11.1 The basis of environmental claims must be clear. Unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information.’

Therefore, marketers are responsible for considering consumers’ interpretation of a claim and how knowledgeable those consumers may be. Of course, nobody wants to mislead consumers willingly!

As an example, the ASA recently banned an ad from Lufthansa. The airline was promoting it’s Green Fare’ prices, suggesting that consumers can pay more for their tickets to reduce and offset emissions for their flights. The ASA quickly reacted, deeming the airline’s strapline of ‘Connecting the world. Protecting its future’ a ‘misleading impression of its environmental impact’.

The consequences of banned ads damage the brand and the wallets of all parties involved, from planning to content creation to marketing.

Finally, we are all working towards achieving Net Zero. In our industry, in particular, we’re working to reduce greenhouse emissions, but we are also responsible for helping encourage consumer behaviour change.

Ad Net Zero developed a five-point action plan to help the industry work towards decarbonisation, with Action 5 outlined as ‘Action 5: Harness advertising’s power to support consumer behaviour change‘.

This highlights the importance of advertising to encourage people to adopt more sustainable habits and lifestyles and to make more considered purchases and choices.

A way in which advertisers can take action is via the #changethebrief alliance, where advertisers are encouraged to challenge briefs to promote more sustainable action. The alliance offers a programme whereby members can gain insights and expert advice to better understand how they can adapt their work to promote more sustainable behaviours and choices.

An example of promoting positive change is Hellman’s advertising campaign that encouraged people to use leftover food to create new dishes using various Hellman products with an aim to make consumers think about food waste. The ads highlighted the strong message that 40% of food waste comes from UK homes, with the subtle message that Hellman’s products can help reduce this waste.

How can we avoid greenwashing?

I’ve listed some simple but important steps to ensure your campaigns are not playing a part in greenwashing.

First things first, be honest! Everyone is trying to do their bit; even small steps are great. However, ensuring you don’t over-promise and are authentic across all aspects of your brand or company is important. Don’t sugar-coat something if work is still to be done – we’re all still learning in this space.

Put your money where your mouth is. For agencies and brands, do the work! Invest in measuring your carbon emissions, reducing your environmental impact and improving your ESG score. Assess your whole ecosystem, from getting your affairs in order to work with reliable and sustainable partners.

Make sure your claims aren’t misleading. For brands, ensure your claims are easy to understand and won’t mislead someone. Ensure that any assets and copy you deliver are accurate, truthful and easy for someone to understand. Advertisers should play a part in reviewing any assets and flagging any concerns.

Ensure you provide substantiated claims. When you do make a claim, it must be backed up by data. For instance, you cannot claim that the product in your ad is sustainable if you have no figures or data to support it. If you’ve done the research and the work, let the consumer know the data and update your website to promote the good work you’ve done in this space with your credentials.

In summary

We’re all being encouraged to work towards a greener future, and pressure is mounting to improve our eco-footprint to reach Net Zero. However, it’s important to remember that some action is better than none and to shout out the wins when we can.

If you can’t activate a carbon-neutral campaign but can reduce the carbon emissions associated with the campaign by a certain amount, that’s still a great step in the right direction. Just be honest with the progress you are making. Some examples of starting points to get the ball rolling can be found in my previous article here.


CAP Guidance on Misleading Environmental Claims and Social Responsibility

Lufthansa’s ‘green’ adverts banned in UK for misleading consumers

Ad Net Zero

Hellman’s Ad

Campaign Live

Change the Brief