You may have noticed the world becoming more eco-friendly in recent years — or at least, so it would appear. But if you’ve ever picked up a product because the packaging had the word “natural” on it or looked recycled, you may have been a victim of greenwashing.
Greenwashing is the practice of making brands appear more sustainable than they really are. It may involve cynical marketing ploys, misguided PR stunts, or simply changing the packaging of an existing product while continuing to use unsustainable ingredients or practices. It’s a way for companies to appear like they care while also increasing their profit margins, as they’re fully aware that eco-conscious people are willing to part with more money for sustainable products.
You might remember the controversy back in 2019 when McDonald’s introduced paper straws that turned out to be non-recyclable. Aside from the questionable practice of cutting down trees to make disposable straws, this was a classic example of a corporate giant pretending to address an issue — in this case, plastic pollution — without actually doing anything.
Another cynical greenwashing move is to slap a green label on something to make it appear more sustainable or healthy, as Coca-Cola did with Coca-Cola Life — that with 6.6% sugar was far from a healthy drink. You’d probably get less Life if you drank a lot of it.
Unfortunately, greenwashing seems to be a trend that’s here to stay. Companies are constantly coming up with new and brilliant ways to tell us lies. One of the best things people can do to protect themselves from these corporate cons is to get familiar with recent greenwashing examples. Awareness of the tricks they use can help you spot other talented greenwashers more easily, so let’s take a look at six greenwashing lowlights from the last couple of years.
Greenwashing examples: 6 stand-out cases
- Year: 2020
- Who called it out: Earthsight
- Type of greenwashing: accredited illegal logging
- Where: EU (Sweden) /Ukraine
IKEA is the largest consumer of wood in the world, and its timber consumption has doubled in the last decade. An investigation by Earthsight found that IKEA has been making beechwood chairs using illegally sourced wood from the forests of Ukraine’s Carpathian region, an area home to endangered beasts such as bears, lynxes, wolves, and bison.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this case is that the illegal timber was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This oversight raises serious questions about the ethics and transparency of the FSC accreditation, which according to Earthsight, is not limited to Ukraine. They describe “rampant illegal logging” across the globe under the watchful eye of the FSC.
In spite of this, IKEA is among the best in the world in terms of its sustainability credentials, and FSC is considered the gold standard of forest accreditation.
- Year: 2019-20
- Who called it out: Packaging 360, Owen Rosenberg
- Type of greenwashing: misleading packaging claims
- Where: USA
The glass cleaner by SC Johnson claimed its bottles were made from 100% “ocean plastic”. But before you start imagining intrepid teams of Windex employees out on boats salvaging plastic from the sea, let me stop you right there — because that’s not what happened.
In fact, the plastic used to make the bottles was never in the ocean. It was pulled from plastic banks in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Haiti. This type of plastic is known as ocean-bound plastic because it would have otherwise ended up in the ocean.
But the problematic marketing doesn’t end there. Windex also claims to be non-toxic, but a lawsuit was filed against SC Johnson in 2020, claiming that Windex products contain ingredients that are harmful to people, animals, and the environment.
3. H&M & Fast Fashion
- Year: 2021
- Who called it out: Changing Markets Foundation
- Type of greenwashing: misleading claims / vague eco-sounding language
- Where: EU
The fast fashion industry is notorious for its environmental impact, so a level of greenwashing is to be expected there. But you might be surprised at the sheer amount of greenwash that was revealed in a 2021 report from the Changing Markets Foundation.
They looked at clothing from major high-street fashion brands to check the truthfulness of their sustainability claims and found 60% of claims overall were misleading. That’s bad but H&M were found to be the worst offenders with a shocking 96% of their claims not holding up.
Put simply, virtually all of the Scandinavian Fashion Giant’s claims were designed to trick people concerned about their environmental impact into buying.
So, the next time you consider buying from a major retailer like H&M because of imprecise green-tinged language like ‘conscious’, reconsider. The percentages say we’re likely being lied to.
4. Hefty Recycling Bags
- Year: 2021
- Who called it out: Lisabeth Hanscom
- Type of greenwashing: false representation of the product
- Where: USA
In May 2021, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Hefty Recycling Bags for the claim that its bags are “designed to handle all types of recyclables”. According to the lawsuit, not only are Hefty bags not recyclable but they also contaminate waste that would otherwise have been recyclable. This means many items that could have been recycled end up in landfills instead.
Hefty bags are therefore no different from ordinary bin bags (and possibly even worse), and the lawsuit claims their misleading branding violates California’s anti-greenwashing laws.
5. Quorn Foods Thai Wonder Grains
- Year: 2020
- Who called it out: The Advertising Standards Agency
- Type of greenwashing: misleading and unverifiable carbon footprint claims
- Where: UK
Quorn Foods advertised their new product, the Thai Wonder Grains lunch pot, as a way to address climate change. The advert claimed it “helps us reduce our carbon footprint”, but what wasn’t clear was who exactly they meant by “us”.
It turns out they were referring to Quorn Foods, and not ordinary folk, who should avoid buying products that come in single-use plastic if they want to reduce their carbon footprint.
An inquiry by the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that the ad was misleading. It also noted that since the product in question was new, it was impossible to determine whether it could reduce Quorn’s carbon footprint.
6. Shell’s Climate Poll on Twitter
- Year: 2020
- Who called it out: The Internet
- Type of greenwashing: gaslighting of the general public
- Where: Worldwide
Shell’s got some balls. The company is responsible for around 1-2% of global CO2 emissions from its activities every year, while it continues to plough ahead and invest billions in oil and gas. And yet, despite this, their marketing team thought it appropriate to ask their followers on Twitter what they were “willing to change to help reduce emissions”? Really?
The poll attracted a modest 199 responses but still went viral due to the wave of vitriol it received in response, including high-profile rejoinders from the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg.
This truly was one of greenwashing’s most egregious examples. But only a few months later, some karma was served when a European court ordered Shell to reduce their carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. It’s the first time that a private company has been ordered to reduce its emissions by a fixed amount with a defined time frame.
With a bit of luck, greenwashing’s days will be numbered. People are getting tired of the same old corporate tricks and want to support brands that are truly sustainable. That’s why at Akepa, we’re committed to helping sustainable brands with their marketing so that consumers can make better, more informed, and more sustainable choices. Get in touch with us to learn how.