Everything You Need to Know About Greenwashing and The Harm It Does to The Environment

What is Greenwashing?

As consumers become more aware of the harm that pollution and unsustainable products cause to our climate and ecosystem, many are looking to make more eco-friendly swaps. However, many companies are using a marketing tactic known as greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a product that isn’t eco-friendly is packaged and marketed as if it were. Many companies do this by making the packaging green or using natural elements, like plants– donning the name greenwashing. 

Greenwashing is a type of advertising or marketing tactic that companies use to persuade the public that their products and practices are environmentally friendly when they actually aren’t. Companies that intentionally use greenwashing often do so to distance themselves from their unsustainable practices or those of their suppliers. Greenwashing can mislead consumers about the true environmental impact of products and services. This practice can lead to consumers unintentionally making choices that are harmful to the environment. It can also make it difficult for consumers to identify and support businesses that are truly committed to sustainability. 

Greenwashing Hurts the Brands That Use It

Customers are aware of greenwashing now more than ever and some are devoted to researching the products they are buying to ensure they are making sustainable purchases or supporting sustainable companies. Because of this, if a company is publicly called out for greenwashing practices on social media, it can cause detrimental harm to the brand image. One of the biggest examples of this would be when Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions tests for its diesel vehicles in 2015. This scandal caused outrage from their consumers and led to a quick decline in their sales.  

As climate-conscious customers learn more about greenwashed products, and how common they are, it leads to an overall distrust towards products that are eco-friendly, as well as the communications industry. Public perception is key- but this propaganda-led, sales-driven practice can lead people to distrust eco-friendly products and companies who manufacture them, scam or not.  

Greenwashing Is Hurting the Environment

The practice of greenwashing can also have several environmental impacts. When consumers are misled about the environmental impact of products, they may be more likely to make choices that are harmful to the environment. If a consumer is misled into believing a company they are supporting is sustainable, via greenwashing, their purchases are causing more issues that that consumer would be against.

Ways to Spot Greenwashing

If you are concerned about greenwashing, here are some tips on how to avoid it:  

  • Vague language or no evidence in a company’s claim about their eco-footprint. 
  • Only highlighting positive environmental benefits while ignoring the negative ones.  
  • Do your own research on the company or similar products. 

Greenwashing is a problem that is only going to get worse as more companies try to profit from the growing demand for sustainable products. Being aware of the problem and staying educated are the best ways we can ensure that we are making informed choices about our purchases that are good for the environment. 

As soon-to-be PR professionals, we have to be aware of how greenwashing causes customers to lose trust in our industry and some companies we may end up working with. This trust can only be gained back with authentic communications and the work of socially aware professionals. The best we can do is to stay aware, know what to look for to spot greenwashing, and not be afraid to speak up about the ethics of it. 

Kaylee Elks is a current student at the University of Memphis working towards a degree in public relations and strategic social media. She is involved in Meeman 901 Strategies, the university’s student-run firm (not a PRSSA affiliate) and the UofM Chapter of PRSSA. Kaylee is an avid nature and outdoors lover working towards her dream of making a difference. 

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