8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)

Posted on: 9 August, 2023

What are the different ways businesses attempt to remarket and camouflage their environmentally damaging products and operations?

As governments worldwide place more emphasis on sustainability, cases of greenwashing – deceptively marketing your products or operations as being environmentally-friendly through unsubstantiated or misleading claims – are rising. According to a 2022 survey of almost 1,500 CEOs and C-Suite leaders, well over half (58%) admitted their companies were guilty of greenwashing, and two-thirds questioned whether their efforts were genuine in the first place.

Learn more: What is greenwashing (and how does it impact the built environment)?

Businesses of all sizes have been found guilty of trying to greenwash their operations in recent years. One notable example was when, in 2019, fast food giant McDonald’s replaced their controversial plastic straws with paper ones, only for it to be revealed that these weren’t recyclable either. Another example is the fashion chain H&M; in 2021, a shocking 96% of their claims about sustainability were found to be inaccurate in a report by Changing Markets Foundation.

Being able to identify signs of greenwashing – both in your own business and in the wider marketplace – is crucial to ensuring accountability and staying on track with global sustainability goals. However, there are various different ways organisations attempt to camouflage their products and operations:

1. Green but vague language

You should always be sceptical of products or services labelled ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘eco-friendly’ if no standards, practices, or examples of evidence are actually shared by the organisation. This is known as ‘green labelling’.

2. Misleading or false data

Along with making baseless claims through language, organisations will often fabricate data or fund research to produce misleading data that improves their image.

3. Greenlighting

Greenlighting – as highlighted in a recent report by Planet Tracker – is using communications and marketing to point out particularly green features of a company’s operations or products and divert attention from poor environmental practices they’re performing elsewhere.

4. Greenhushing

Similarly to greenlighting, greenhushing is where corporate communications deliberately underplay, under-report, and hide data on sustainability.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

5. Greenrinsing

In this example of greenwashing, companies will modify their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets before they’ve even been achieved – thus avoiding being held accountable and never actually achieving their goals.

6. Greenshifting

Planet Tracker defines greenshifting as ‘when companies imply that the consumer is at fault and shift the blame on them’. An example of this is when, in 2020, oil and gas giant Shell asked what people were prepared to do to help reduce the world’s carbon emissions, only to be called out by American politician Alexandria Occasion-Cortez:

Screenshot of a Twitter conversation of Shell asking the question 'What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?'

Screenshot of twitter reply 'The audacity of Shell asking YOU what YOU'RE willing to do to reduce emissions. They're showing you RIGHT HERE how the suggestion that indiv choices - not systems - are a main driver of climate change is a fossil fuel talking point. Yes, make good choices. Reign in FF corps.

7. Greencrowding

Greencrowding is where companies hide in groups to avoid having their environmentally damaging practices discovered. Another Planet Tracker report, released in 2022, identifies the members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) as an example of this:

“In the first three years of its operation, the AEPW recycled less than 0.0004% of global plastic generated… In addition, the top 10 producers of single-use plastic in the Alliance did not even remove or recycle 99.99% of their own plastic… Finally, none of the group’s progress reports provide transparent, measurable and audited information.”

Learn more: 5 ways the built environment can avoid greenwashing

8. Deceptive imagery

We often associate sustainability with green imagery, be it trees, forests, grass, or flowers. Unfortunately, this is a deceptive way companies can try to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.