What is greenwashing?

By Sarah Kollnig, Montanuniversität Leoben | 17 July 2023

Frequently, companies make claims to sustainability when these claims are actually unsubstantiated. This is called “greenwashing”. The European Commission has made a proposal for a Green Claims Directive, where it is stated that the following circumstances count as greenwashing (European Commission, March 2023):

  • Using sustainability labels that are not awarded by a public authority or through a certification scheme – such as labels created voluntarily by the industry.
  • Making generic environmental claims that cannot be substantiated by the company’s performance – such as claiming to be “climate neutral” when this is actually biophysically impossible.
  • Making environmental claims about the entire product, when it actually just concerns certain parts or aspects of the product – such as when one ingredient is sustainably sourced, yet it is claimed that the entire product is sustainable.
  • Presenting requirements imposed by law as a distinctive achievement of the producer/seller – such as making a point of switching to plastic-free alternatives when single-used plastics have been banned by law.

Making such claims is often accompanied by strong marketing narratives that create a sustainable image.

As sustainability researchers Bryant and Goodman already stated in 2004, there are two main narratives that can be distinguished. Firstly, a narrative of  “Edenic myth-making”, and secondly, “solidarity-seeking consumption”.

Edenic myth-making creates the image that by buying a product, consumers contribute to saving idyllic ecosystems, such as the rainforests. Products contain images and words that trigger these associations in consumers. Examples are the expression “rainforest-friendly”, images of seemingly perfect ecosystems and animals in the wild, or even images of indigenous peoples.

The second narrative creates the impression that by buying a product, consumers help people from poorer countries. Products contain images of farmers from foreign countries and give insights into their “traditional” artisanal way of life. The product is not just a product – it has a face, it connects to people from the other side of the world. This way, consumers are made to believe that by buying a product, they help other people and show solidarity with them.

In addition to these narratives, product labelling has emerged as a way of distinguishing products from each other. These labels have emerged as a response to consumers becoming more critical about the background of a product or service. Yet, it is difficult for consumers to distinguish between labels bound to strict, independent regulations and labels basically made up by the producers.

All in all, greenwashing is a business practice that often lures consumers into buying products that are far from being sustainable regarding environmental and social aspects.

What can we do against this?

Very often, consumers do not have the time, energy and the economic resources to analyse products and choose the ones with the smallest environmental and social impacts. Therefore, it is necessary to create policies that ensure that producers and traders have to be more responsible and transparent regarding the impacts of their products and business practices. 

Literature:

Bryant, R. & Goodman, M. (2004). Consuming narratives: The political ecology of ‘alternative’ consumption. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Nr. 29, pp. 344-366;

European Commission (2023). Proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and the Council on substantiation and communication of explicit environmental claims – Green Claims Directive. Brussels: European Commission.

Image credits: jtpatriot at pixabay

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