The Cambridge Dictionary definition of Greenwash is: to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. Most people believe it’s from the word Whitewash: an attempt to stop people finding out the true facts about the situation. Another suggestion is that it comes from to Brainwash: to make someone believe something by repeatedly telling them that it is true and preventing any other information from reaching them.


The term ‘greenwashing’ was reportedly first used in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher. He was remarking on the adoption of a reusable towel service at a beach resort in Samoa, which they claimed was ‘saving the environment’. The issue was that, aside from this (small) gesture, the resort was rapidly expanding in not so environmentally friendly ways.




Sadly, greenwashing is now rife. It is largely about misleading with words: offering up vague or seemingly unprovable statistics; overstatements or exaggerations; and half-truths (leaving out or masking important information).

And there is no doubt that we are seeing an increase in selective transparency (or symbolic corporate environmentalism). It’s often not what’s being said you need to watch, it’s what’s not being disclosed.

We are also seeing companies using clever (green) imagery as a tactic to divert attention and give the impression of something being environmentally more friendly than it really is.




There are many reasons why a company now needs to address sustainability – both from an environmental and a societal standpoint.

The list is comprehensive and evolving daily, but the headlines are:

  • The increase in more conscious consumers.
  • Employees wanting to work for companies that stand for more than simply making a stack of cash.
  • Supply chain scrutiny meaning that B2B contracts are being won or lost on the back of appropriate sustainability credentials.
  • Risk mitigation driving businesses to get ahead of future legislation (driven by government commitments to the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development).
  • The investment world’s newfound focus on ESG.

When faced with such compelling commercial imperatives, it makes sense that an organization would strive to ‘be seen to be greener’.

For example:

In 2019, Ryanair came under fire from the Advertising Standards Authority for using outdated information to claim it was the UK’s lowest emission airline. However, the statistics it used failed to include a number of rival airlines AND it was found to include data from 2011. The ASA ruled that there was not enough evidence to support the claim and banned the advert as misleading.

Source: The Guardian Feb 2020 

Also in 2019, environmental legal charity ‘Client Earth’ launched a complaint against BP over its ‘Keep Advancing’ and ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ campaigns. In these, BP acknowledge the need to drastically reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and talk of their commitment to low-carbon and renewable energy. The charity argued however that the fact still remains that 96% of their annual capital expenditure is spent on non-renewable oil and gas.

Source: Ethical Consumer 2020



But is it always cold and calculated? Or is it sometimes simply a case of overly enthusiastic miscommunication?

Let us consider for a moment, the hard-pressed marketing person, eager to please.

On one side the company is demanding that they:

“Convince more people to buy more of our product.”

“Improve our brand image.”

“Increase customer engagement levels.”

On the other side, the customer research is highlighting the rise in more conscious purchasing and the customer is saying:

“I want to be seen to be greener.”

“I want products that reflect my values.”

“I want brands with purpose.”

Is marketing in fact just ‘stuck in the middle’? With this pressure, surely anyone would grasp at the first ethical or sustainable marketing claim as the perfect solution to form the basis of a campaign strategy or theme?*


It is natural for people to have an over-inflated view of their brands, products or services, but some professional cross-examination of claims and statements can flush out the dubious, the doubtful, and the delusional. And avoid people becoming complicit in greenwashing.

Here’s a framework that can help anyone interrogate a claim. It encourages looking at it from a legal and a moral perspective, and:

  • checking the facts,
  • clarifying the details,
  • challenging like a customer, and
  • changing where necessary.


If you want to protect the reputation of your company or brand, it is the responsibility of everyone in the organization (from the C-Suite, through product development, operations and communications) to work together to ensure truth and transparency.

If we can stamp out greenwashing, we can rebuild customer trust. And help save the planet!

Sarah Duncan

Sustainable Business Advisor, Trainer and Author of The Ethical Business Book

For advice and bespoke workshops, contact: sarah@sleepinglion.co.uk

Or visit: ethicalbusinessblog.com