Greenwashing in businesses and how to avoid it

Greenwashing is a term used to describe the practice of making false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, or business. It can be used to deceive consumers into believing that a product is more environmentally friendly than it is or to make a business appear to be more sustainable than it actually is.

When reviewing a business’s communications, or your own, for greenwashing there is a set of criteria that can be used to determine if its environmental claims are genuine.

Here are some possible criteria that could be used as a litmus test to check for greenwashing:

1. Transparency: Does the business provide detailed information about its environmental practices and initiatives, including its goals, progress, and results? Are they willing to answer questions and engage in dialogue about their environmental impact?
2. Specificity: Are the businesses’ environmental claims specific and measurable, or are they vague and difficult to verify? For example, instead of saying they are “eco-friendly,” do they provide specific information about their use of renewable energy, their waste reduction strategies, or their use of sustainable materials?
3. Third-party certification: Has the business obtained third-party certification from a reputable organisation, such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Marine Stewardship Council, to validate its environmental claims?
4. Context: Are the businesses’ environmental claims consistent with the industry standards and best practices? For example, if a company claims to have reduced their carbon footprint, is this reduction significant compared to the industry average, or is it merely a small improvement?
5. Long-term commitment: Does the company have a long-term commitment to sustainability, or are their environmental initiatives only short-term PR campaigns? Are they investing in research and development to find new ways to reduce their environmental impact?

Here are some words to avoid greenwashing in your communication:

1. Carbon friendly

“Carbon friendly” lacks clarity and specificity. It does not provide clear information about the actual carbon emissions or environmental impact of a product or business. Instead, focus on using more precise terms like “carbon reduction efforts” or “carbon footprint reduction strategies” to convey a genuine commitment to minimising carbon emissions.

2. 100% Sustainable

While striving for sustainability is commendable, claiming to be “100% sustainable” across all aspects is often unrealistic and difficult to substantiate. Sustainability is a continuous journey that involves ongoing improvement and adaptation. Instead, provide specific details about sustainable practices and initiatives implemented by the business.

3. Eco-friendly or Environmentally friendly

The term “eco-friendly” is vague. It does not provide clear information about the actual environmental impact or sustainability efforts. Instead, use more specific language that highlights concrete actions and initiatives, such as “environmentally responsible practices” or “environmentally conscious initiatives” and note them.

4. Natural or Organic

While “natural” and “organic” are not inherently negative terms, they can be misleading when used inappropriately or without proper context. To avoid confusion, be transparent and provide accurate information about the specific certifications or standards that define a product or process as natural or organic.

5. Recyclable

While recycling is a valuable environmental practice, simply stating that a product is “recyclable” without further context can be misleading. It is essential to provide information about the availability of recycling infrastructure and ensure that the product is widely accepted in recycling programs.

6. Green

The term “green” is overused. It can be interpreted in various ways and does not provide clear information about a business or product’s environmental impacts. Instead, use more descriptive terms like “environmentally conscious,” “sustainable,” or “eco-conscious” to communicate specific actions and initiatives.

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Words to use instead for your communication to avoid greenwashing:

1. Minimise and Reduce

Using terms like “minimise” and “reduce” communicates a proactive approach to environmental impact. It demonstrates a commitment to decreasing resource consumption, waste generation, and emissions. Be specific about the areas in which reduction efforts are being made, such as energy usage, water consumption, or packaging waste.

2. Sustainability

The term “sustainability” encompasses the broader concept of balancing environmental, social, and economic considerations. It signifies a long-term commitment to responsible practices that ensure the well-being of future generations.

3. Carbon Scopes or Scope emissions

Referring to “carbon scopes” recognises the different categories of greenhouse gas emissions. This demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of carbon footprints and a willingness to address emissions holistically. Use this term to highlight efforts to measure, manage, and reduce emissions across all scopes, including direct, indirect, and supply chain emissions.

4. Supply Chain

Acknowledging the importance of the supply chain demonstrates an understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental impact. Use this term to convey efforts to assess and improve sustainability practices throughout the entire value chain, including suppliers, logistics, and distribution.

5. Responsible sourcing

Use the term “responsible sourcing” to convey a commitment to selecting suppliers and materials that align with environmental and social standards. This term highlights efforts to ensure the sustainability and ethical practices of the supply chain.

6. Responsible consumption

“Responsible consumption” shows the significance of making conscious choices to minimise the environmental impact of products and services. Use this term to promote sustainable consumer behaviours, such as opting for durable, ethically sourced, and environmentally friendly products.

The regulators are also watching…

In 2022, the Competition Markets Authority released a new Green Claims code to determine if businesses are complying with the UK consumer protection law or not. Big companies could face penalties of up to 10% of the global turnover.

Communicating sustainability accurately and transparently is essential for building trust with consumers. By avoiding vague and misleading terms, businesses can demonstrate their genuine commitment to minimising environmental impact.


To see how we can help you with your communication, Communication & Reporting – Sustainable X


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