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

Posted on: 7 August, 2023

Greenwashing is a common marketing and business practice that can have serious ramifications for business and the environment if left unchecked.

With climate change concerns growing and new legislation being set by governments across the globe, it’s not surprising that more and more businesses are talking about sustainability. Corporations are one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions – just under a fifth of the UK’s total carbon emissions come from commercial activity. The built environment is no stranger to this either, with our industry responsible for 39% of global energy related to carbon emissions.

What’s more, being sustainable is important to modern consumers – according to a McKinsey survey, over 60% of respondents would pay more for a product with sustainable packaging, while a study by NielsenIQ found that 78% of US consumers believe a sustainable lifestyle is important to them.

But while many corporations have gone to great lengths to decarbonise their operations, not all businesses and industries have shown the same commitment. Many companies have taken to greenwashing – making vague, misleading, or even false claims about their environmental impact and activity. In fact, a 2020 Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) review found that 40% of green claims online ‘could be misleading’ to customers.

So what exactly is greenwashing, and how does it happen in the built environment?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is where an organisation provides misleading or incorrect information about their product or operations and their impact on the environment. While this concept has been around since the 1960s, it’s gained prominence in recent years amid greater demand for sustainable products from customers and increased pressure and legislation from governments.

Today, greenwashing is rife, with the same CMA report placing particular emphasis on the construction sector and its ‘questionable’ net zero carbon claims. What’s more, the Climate Change Committee criticised the UK government over policies around energy efficiency and agriculture last year in a 600-page report, claiming the country is set to miss its flagship net-zero target.

Greenwashing can take various forms in the built environment. For example, a construction company could be fitting their buildings with solar panels in an attempt draw attention from the environmentally damaging nature of their production. Similarly, it can be a case of adding a ‘green’ label to a man-made environment doing significant harm to the planet, as when Grimshaw won an award for the ‘greenest airport in India’.

Learn more: 8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)

How does greenwashing impact businesses and the environment?

Businesses that partake in greenwashing may believe that they’re contributing when they adopt green messaging, but the truth is they’re doing far more harm than good. Making false or misleading claims and failing to follow them up with action gives permission for other brands and consumers to do the same. This removes accountability, allows businesses to carry on with their environmentally harmful activities, and prevents the development of a sustainable economy. In the built environment in particular, where we have a responsibility to champion sustainability and the push to achieving net zero, greenwashing can have a disastrous impact.

Learn more: 5 ways the built environment can avoid greenwashing

Being accused of greenwashing can also destroy a brand’s reputation. With incoming generations of consumers increasingly concerned about sustainability and customer loyalty on the decline since the pandemic, negative publicity can jeopardise on an organisation’s standing with consumers. As in the case with the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal, this can damage can take a herculean effort to repair – something not all companies could recover from.

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.