Spotting Greenwashing

The idyll on the website

Warm rays of the rising sun gleaming through the buds of snowwhite cottonballs. A woman strides through the cotton fields and lets her hands, almost as soft as the cotton flocks, glide over the fuzzy snowballs. A picture of workers or companions, flashing a smile into the camera. Without saying it out loud, their smiles tell that they are following a passion alongside nature. An idyll coming to life, at least on the websites of large companies of the textile industries and other branches. Sustainability reports proclaim a huge progress of companies and an even greater future. Yet those claims seem to crumble when taking a look at reports about unsafe work conditions, practices harming the environment and false promises coming to light. Allegations of „greenwashing“, a PR tactic which lets companies appear greener than they factually really are, are published on a regular. With the rising importance of sustainability it's no wonder that every brand wants a green image. But with the public demand of companies to position themselves regarding sustainability and animal rights, it's getting harder to distinguish brands that just clean their records from businesses that really take efforts to go green. This practice of „cleaning up“ came to public light in 1986, first being noticed by Jay Westerweld, who initially criticized cleaning services literally. To be more precise, he denounced the at the time new, now common practice, of hotels asking their guests to use their towels more than once. In Jay Westervelds opinion, the hotels pursued just monetary goals with this plea and wanted to gain more acceptance for it by telling their guests, that the new towel policy is for the sake of the environment. Jay Westervelds term „greenwashing“ gained popularity and with that an expansion of the meaning, from just questionable cleaning services, to several strategies that coat companies with a fashionable green look.

Why companies go to lengths to appear green

Pretending to be greener than one actually is, can be very straining and time consuming. So why are taking brands such a huge effort to appear environmentally friendly and even go to lengths by publishing expensive sustainability reports? One reason could be the rise of a new critical consumer group, called „LOHAS“. The relatively new term is an abbreviation that stands for „lifestyle of health and sustainability“, describing people who value a conscious and sustainable lifestyle. With a market potential of 200 Billion $, it's pretty self explanatory why companies want to gain this consumer group as customers. Therefore using methods like greenwashing to appear more sustainable and socially responsible, than one actually is, is very attractive. Even if a customer doesn't belong to the „LOHAS“ - it feels good to purchase something that benefits the environment.

A tale of selective truth and PR work - the methods of greenwashing.

To achieve a sustainable perception some companies make use of several tactics, reaching from sugarcoating the truth to completely misleading the consumer. Therefore it is a popular method to make the brand’s commitment regarding sustainability appear disproportionately positive. Businesses that use this method technically don't tell lies, they „just“ make their efforts seem greater than they actually are. One example are the materials of clothing, which are often advertised as partly organic or recycled. The attention of the consumer is consciously led towards the sustainable parts of the product, even though the majority of used materials is not environmentally friendly. Additionally, brands quite often promote one-time campaigns like planting trees or the launch of a sustainable limited collection excessively. The disproportionate portrayal of those campaigns lets the brand’s effort seem more impactful than it actually is and evokes an image of constant commitment, even if the efforts were just a one-time thing. Asides from the fashion industry, companies sometimes use absolute standards like the abolishment of CFC for advertisement purposes.

Use of non-protected terms and positive language
Misleading representations are often combined with positively connoted terms like „sustainable“ or „environmentally friendly.“. Even though these terms evoke a certain image in the consumer’s mind, there actually is no legal regulation of who can call themselves these terms. To be more precise: Nobody is going to control, if brands referring to themselves as sustainable, really are what they claim to be. So terms like „environmentally safe“ are not as convincing and expressive as they sound, as everyone can claim to be those things. Precisely as terms like these are not protected by law, companies often give several more or less convincing reasons on why they are sustainable. For example a brand is able to pass off as sustainable, because they might use recycled plastic for shipping, partly use renewable natural resources or other measures, which can differ from being an important step to being not impactful to the eco-audit at all. In general, the language is often chosen to be very positive, avoiding worn out terms like „biogenetics“ and instead using terms untouch by the media like „bioengineering“.

Production Process of Leather

Companies often give several more or less convincing reasons on why they are sustainable.

Use of misleading labels
Alongside other tactics, businesses often use labels for their products. Foremost labels should give the consumer a quick inside of the manufacturing process and other characteristics of the product. But with the plurality of certificates and their varying significance the contrary effect is often achieved. For users of greenwashing this instance is welcomed because labels display a certain reliability in the eye of the consumer even though the true meaning of the sign often is unknown. Labels with no importance regarding sustainability, or certificates which companies are not even allowed to use, are therefore displayed on brand’s websites. Some businesses even go a step further and introduce new, brand exclusive labels to customers. Their expressiveness can be unpredictable as no independent institute evaluates the test procedures and data.

Self published sustainability reports
To give a company’s public image a green look, sustainability reports and memberships in organisations are often published and promoted. But just like brand exclusive labels, self-published sustainability reports don't have to be expressive because they are commonly not reviewed by independent institutes. To contribute to that, financial reports are usually published separately from sustainability reports, so public accountants don't get a look in them either. Memberships in charitable organisations also aren’t a proof for the company’s commitment. Everyone who had to be a part of group projects in school, knows why.

Misleading pictures
In addition to a positive language, many companies present images of joyful animals, green grasslands and happy workers on their website. Most pictures neither show real production facilities nor stand in any relation to the business. Still, these images often evoke a clear vision of the corporation’s morals in the customers mind. That's why in many cases consumers don't question how companies portray themselves and if this stands in any relation to their real actions.

Expansion of the companies presence
To spread their name even further, some corporations offer educational programs, such as lessons about sustainability to schools. Thus businesses like to present their alleged commitment to topics like sustainability and animal rights. These educational programs pay off because at least the companies name is spread among the students and at best some of them may consider buying from them in the future or even start a career within the corporation. To remain in the public eye is also the intention behind big announcements of projects, which may not have that huge of an impact as the businesses make it out to be or are just in the first phase of planning. One example of this is the launch of sustainable collections and the following excessive promotion of it, even if the collection is limited, has just a small number of pieces or is a pilot project not for sale.

Beetween Greenwashing and going green – how to spot greenwashing and 'sus'tainability

1. Be aware of suspiciously positive language – not everything is as it seems to be!
Terms like 'sustainable' and 'environmentally friendly' are not protected by law and therefore don't have to be expressive regarding the companies and their products. Also by EU legislation, not every term is protected in every segment. For example the term 'organic' is protected for food, but not for textiles. So double check if the brand provides trustworthy labels and certificates and can elaborate on why they call themselves ‘sustainable’, by giving concrete examples for their efforts.

Production Process of Leather

Double check if the brand provides trustworthy labels and certificates and can elaborate on why they call themselves ‘sustainable’.

2. Watch out for labels!
Not every label gives an insight into the origin of used materials, environmental impact, production, and workers right. Some labels may have untrustworthy testing procedures or not even apply to clothes. A label, which evaluates work safety just does that, even if the brand misinterprets the label and presents it as a certificate for sustainability. Some companies go even further and introduce new labels and certifications, which exclusively evaluate the own brand. Those labels can't necessarily be trusted as no independent institute will audit the testing method. Trustworthy labels are the GOTS certificate, the fairtrade textile production label and the blue sign certification. Reliable labels have a website on which they explain exactly what they certify.

Labels and certifications can't necessarily be trusted.

3. Take a look behind the picture!
As stated before, not every picture shows the reality. So try to find out, if the pictures show real production facilities and if the brand can locate them. You may also use the google reverse image search to find out, if the picture shows up somewhere else in the internet.

4. Stay critical regarding sustainability reports and PR work!
In many cases the data for sustainability reports is raised with in-house testing methods and evaluated by the companies themselves, so you can't always be sure how accurate they really are. Check for yourself how transparent the data and the results are being displayed and if the business evaluates room for improvement. At best the reports are reviewed by independent institutes, but that is rarely the case. You should also question if the media coverage of projects portrays the companies in the right way or if things are blown out of proportion.

5. Take a look a the big picture!
Always keep an eye out for information published by the label. Is information only given out selectively and are critical voices answered or shut down? To do so, consider multiple sources and take a look at the overall appearance of the brand. Tools like the fashion revolution index and the “good on you” App evaluate the transparency, sustainability and social responsibility of big brands. Yet smaller businesses are usually not listed on those sites and also don't have a lot of expensive certifications. But since they don't have that big of a following, personal requests and questions are often answered and some sustainability-blogs feature them. See for yourself, if brands show a constant commitment, or if one time efforts are being excessively promoted and blown out of proportion. So always double check if a company can hold up to their claims!

See for yourself, if brands show a constant commitment, or if one time efforts are being excessively promoted and blown out of proportion.

How questionable cleaning services led to a criticism of a whole industry

When Jay Westerveld criticized the cleaning policies of hotels in 1986, he most likely couldn't predict that his term “greenwashing” would become a Flagship for critical consumers. Since then, many variations of the iconic term were developed. Some examples are the term “bluewashing”, which describes the pretense of social responsibility, or “pink washing”, which criticizes the support of the LGBTQAI+ community for advertisement purposes. Jay Westerveld captured one important thing with his initial criticism: Sustainability and the environment are the leading topics of the future and therefore no company can ignore it. Thus it's no wonder, that more and more businesses want to go green. Naturally, some companies are not down for taking the responsibility for a sustainable future into their own hands and rather practice greenwashing instead. With exaggerations, carefully chosen words and untrustworthy certifications, the corporations “greencoat” themselves. Since consumer groups like the “LOHAS” are the main reasons for greenwashing, it's necessary to question marketing tactics and to only make conscious buying decisions. But with the help of our guide, you'd be a master in spotting greenwashing in no time!


Ulrich Müller: Greenwash in Zeiten des Klimawandels. Wie Unternehmen ihr Image grün färben, Köln 2007.
You can find the study here

Peter Seele: Is Blue the new Green? Colors of the Earth in Corporate PR and Advertisement to communicate Ethical Commitment and Responsibililty, Essen 2007.
Read the paper here

Sebastiao Vieira de Freitas Netto et al. : Concepts and forms of greenwashing. A systematic review, Springer Verlag 2020.

Fenzel, Viktoria: CSR in der Modebranche. Anspruch und Wirklichkeit von Corporate Social Responsibility in der Textilindustrie, Hamburg 2018.

Greensurance Articel about labels and their significance , last checked 05.07.2021

Siegelklarheit, a website for checking labels , last checked 05.07.2021

Paper which explains the issue around the term organic , last checked 05.07.2021

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