What is greenwashing—and how do you recognise it?

What is greenwashing?

The dictionary says:

Greenwashing is the attempt by companies or institutions to present themselves as particularly environmentally aware and environmentally friendly by making monetary donations to ecological projects, PR measures or similar.

Let’s take a closer look at the word. The word ‘green’ here stands for nature, environment or socially sustainable. Washing’ means washing oneself clean of responsibility. Translated, greenwashing means giving oneself an image of sustainability. Although the company in question is not sustainable.

You can recognise greenwashing when a company presents itself as overly sustainable. If you look behind the façade, you will quickly discover practices that are harmful to the climate or socially. With all the sustainability seals and eco-labels, we might think: Hey, we are already climate-friendly everywhere. But the climate crisis rages on. There are services or products that quite objectively simply cannot be environmentally friendly. We need to know that.

greenwashing example shower gel
This shampoo advertises that the wild mint in the product is 100% natural. Yet the product consists mainly of artificial ingredients. As you can see on the back of the product.

Why do companies do greenwashing?

I have a background in marketing. “There is a truth in every product” is an old marketing wisdom. It is not immediately wrong to find a special product feature. And to develop a creative communication strategy based on it. In practice, however, marketers like to invent sales benefits for products. Sometimes marketing departments invoke a completely trivial feature of a product. In this way, they conceal other climate-damaging features by means of communication. It may be that an ingredient of a shampoo is natural. The company can also advertise that. However, the fact that this product consists of many artificial ingredients is concealed. In practice, this leads to products being falsely perceived as sustainable. This is a problem, because we urgently need real sustainability.

What does it look like when companies do greenwashing?

Every year, the environmental protection association ‘Deutsche Umwelthilfe’ nominates companies that present themselves as particularly sustainable but then act in an environmentally harmful way. “In reality, none of the nominated products makes a positive contribution to climate and environmental protection; they only drive us deeper into the climate crisis. With the Golden Vulture Award, we are drawing attention to this misguided development,” says Barbara Metz, Federal Executive Director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe.

Shell’s CO2-neutral refuelling

In a current campaign, Shell offers you to pay 1.1 cents per litre of petrol and then drive CO2-neutral. Many environmentalists’ jaws drop at this. The fact is: Shell and CO2-neutral? That is wrong on many levels. Shell emits 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. This makes the company one of the biggest drivers of the climate crisis. 1.1 cents per litre of petrol means we only have to spend 225 million euros a year to make all fuel consumption in Germany immediately climate-neutral. The Federal Environment Agency says we need at least 10 billion to offset the CO2 emissions of petrol consumption. High-quality CO2 compensation costs much more than 1.1 cents. Moreover, Shell does not specify how it intends to offset CO2 at all.

Shell Greenwashing
Shell advertises CO2-neutral refuelling. Yet Shell is responsible for annual CO2 emissions of 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2.Image: focus.

Volvic’s recycled plastic bottles

Volvic advertises that their plastic bottles are environmentally friendly. After all, they are made of recycled materials. But they are not at all: plastic remains plastic. Recycled plastic is better than newly produced plastic. But that does not make it environmentally friendly. Water is available regionally in Germany. It is better to offer water in returnable bottles. They can be refilled up to 50 times. Moreover, the delivery routes for Volvic produce additional CO2.

Lululemon’s yoga clothing made from fossil fuels

Almost all yoga fans have at least one piece of clothing from the fashion company Lululemon. The company advertises with the slogan ‘Be Human, be Well, be Planet’. However, the company is currently facing accusations: Many of the company’s products are made with energy from fossil fuels. “Practice what you preach!” therefore demand yoga fans worldwide. The company is already responding. “It is a member of working groups that are committed to phasing out the direct use of coal at selected suppliers,” reports Die Zeit.

How do you recognise greenwashing?

Now we have already looked at some examples. How can you now be sure that you are confronted with greenwashing?

  1. Look for figures that prove environmental protection
    Always look for real numbers behind products. Look at the website. Are the claims really true - can the argument be substantiated? Is the company transparent in what it does? Are there annual reports? You should be particularly alert if you don’t get concrete figures or sources even when you ask.
  2. Watch out for misleading advertising claims
    Vegan is often associated with organic quality. However, vegan primarily means animal-free. Plastic is mostly animal-free. So it is vegan. Does that make a plastic bag organic? No. Check what terms mean and how they are used. Even if something sounds “green”, it doesn’t have to be environmentally friendly.
  3. Recognise red herrings
    Let’s say a petroleum company is advertising to buy a new e-car. Is this company now climate-friendly? No, it isn’t. Highlighting irrelevant facts as special: this is a strategy of greenwashing.

You can spot greenwashing everywhere if you look closer

We know how advertising works. Sustainability and environmental protection are the topics of the day. It’s clear that some brands are jumping on the bandwagon and ‘greenwashing’. All the more reason to take a closer look. Never before has it been more important to take a look behind the scenes and ask questions. It is in our hands. It is the only way to find truly green companies, organisations and people who want to shape our future. Don’t forget: the choices you make about what you consume can change the world.

How can you protect the climate in Europe with ForTomorrow?

We cannot yet prevent CO2 from being produced in all areas of life. Even if you take the train, you still often produce CO2. Over long distances, the train still runs on fossil fuel. In everyday life, we use many products that are not yet climate-neutral. We offer you the opportunity to compensate for the CO2 emissions that you cannot yet prevent. We achieve this through secure climate protection in Europe. We buy away CO2 rights from coal power plants and cancel them. At the same time, we plant climate-resilient mixed forests in Germany.