Exposing the Dark Side of Green Marketing: The Truth Behind Greenwashing Tactics

Greenwashing, the deceptive marketing practice of misleading consumers about a company's environmental practices, is gaining attention and causing concern. Recent reports highlight the impact of greenwashing on investor confidence and credibility in an environmentally conscious market.

Exposing the Dark Side of Green Marketing: The Truth Behind Greenwashing Tactics
Photo by Brian Yurasits / Unsplash

Greenwashing, the act of deceiving consumers about a company's environmental practices for marketing purposes, has received increased attention in recent weeks. The media has been highlighting greenwashing and its impact on businesses. On October 10th, The Times reported that investors are becoming cautious about greenwashing. A survey showed that only 53% of respondents consider environmental factors before investing, compared to 60% last year. The article suggests that funds that exaggerate their sustainable practices for marketing purposes may be contributing to this decline in investor confidence. Respondents are calling for more transparency, industry regulation, and verification by reputable third parties to address these concerns.

The Conversation (October 3rd) discusses how airlines are facing litigation for making sensational claims about sustainability and low-carbon operations, which is known as anti-greenwashing. Flying contributes about 5% to global warming caused by humans, making the aviation industry a target for climate activists. In 2019 alone, airline advertisements influenced approximately 34 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions worldwide, according to Greenpeace. Major airlines have been sued for misleading advertising claims related to protecting the future or being sustainable or low-emissions airlines (Bloomberg, 25th Sept).

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Apple CEO Tim Cook recently addressed concerns about greenwashing and the company's environmental initiatives and product releases in an interview with 9to5 MAC and Apple Insider. Cook discussed the reason behind Apple's annual release of new iPhones and highlighted their commitment to recycling old devices and utilising disassembled materials from non-working phones.

Forbes (28th Sept) has reported on proposed EU consumer protections against greenwashing. This could be a preview of similar regulations in the US market. The European Union wants to change consumer rights laws to include sustainability considerations and tackle deceptive marketing practices related to environmental claims made by companies (greenwashing). This follows previous EU initiatives like adopting ESG reporting standards (guidelines and frameworks for disclosing information about environmental, social, and governance practices) and passing legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Marketing tactics used by companies can include the use of green guidebooks, which generate environmental credibility. Companies may also increase environmental disclosure or signal environmental quality through reports, advertising, websites, or eco-certification schemes without actually making any improvements. The really unscrupulous ones may use unsubstantiated, self-declared or first-party eco-labels providing false or inaccurate green information. Rebranding as environmentally friendly is another tactic, even if the company is a major carbon emitter. Unsubstantiated or misleading claims about environmental and social attributes can also be made.

Green by Association is a tactic that suggests a product is environmentally friendly through imagery or words, even if it's not.

Given the spoils, should we be surprised that some companies allocate resources to promote products as environmentally friendly instead of actually reducing their negative impact on the environment.

Vague language, selective disclosure, overstatement, and 'fibbing' (that's lying to you and I) are other tactics used in greenwash marketing. Companies may also ignore guidelines and provide irrelevant, exaggerated, or false information about a product's sustainable qualities.

Finally the use of subtle green cues in advertisements is also employed to avoid negative attitudes.

Greenwashing has a negative impact on consumer perceptions, happiness, and purchasing intentions. Even companies with high corporate social responsibility scores engage in greenwashing practices, which undermines how consumers perceive a company's image and brands. It is crucial to understand the causes, effects, and techniques of greenwashing, as it manipulates consumer perceptions and decision-making. Misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of a product or company, has detrimental effects on consumers, brands, and organisations. It negatively affects consumer purchase intentions and behaviour, inhibits informed purchase decisions, increases consumer confusion, and diminishes willingness to pay for greenwashed products. Greenwashing undermines consumer perception of a company's image and consumer happiness during website interactions. It also influences consumers' evaluation of advertisements, brand's ecological image, and brand attitude. Greenwashing impacts consumer perceptions of risk, skepticism, green trust, and green word-of-mouth. It also negatively affects green brand associations, credibility, equity, image, loyalty, and customer brand engagement. Case examples of greenwashing by corporations like H&M, Unilever, and Nestle, emphasise the need to understand the causes, effects, and techniques of greenwashing.

When companies engage in greenwashing, it results in a decrease in the desire to invest, higher blame placed on them, and a reduced willingness to work together. Greenwashing also has a negative impact on consumers' inclination to buy other brands in the same industry.

Greenwashing has often gone unnoticed; many consumers lack knowledge about environmental issues and the specific attributes of green products, making it difficult for them to identify false claims. Additionally, greenwashing involves vague or ambiguous claims that are hard to verify, such as labelling a product as "eco-friendly" without clear definitions. Emotional appeals, such as pleasant nature imagery, can also distract consumers from critically evaluating claims. Combine this with limited resources and significant trust in brands it is hardly surprising that consumers do not voice concerns or question environmental claims.

To combat greenwashing, consumers need knowledge, critical thinking skills, and access to information to effectively spot and challenge misleading advertising practices.

Firms may not act green if we restrict greenwashing. However, if we allow greenwashing practices, it can harm organisations, especially when consumers see it. This negatively affects their desire to make environmentally friendly purchases more widely.

There is now growing attention on greenwashing. This includes investor skepticism towards sustainable investments, legal challenges faced by industries like aviation, and the possibility of regulatory action to protect consumers from misleading environmental claims. It is important for businesses to address greenwashing in order to maintain trust and credibility in an environmentally conscious market.

Only genuine green behaviour will have the desired positive effects on stakeholders.