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What is Greenwashing?

In a recent webinar, "Greenwashing and its Dirty Consequences," I spoke about what greenwashing is, some examples, types of claims, and referencing the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides for guidance. 

What is greenwashing? That is the question of the day. There is not one regulatory definition of what greenwashing is. And in fact, if you Google the term, you're going to get variations on the same thing. It is when companies market their products or portray their practices as being more environmental than they really are. Now, that could be intentional or non-intentional. Companies, rightly so, want to let consumers know what they're doing that's helpful for the environment or if their product is beneficial compared to a competitor's. But it can lean over to the greenwashing and you have to be careful.

Here are some examples. The first one is misleading or vague labeling. Eco-friendly, all-natural green. If you see that, I have no clue what that means. What is eco-friendly? Is the product eco-friendly? Is how you use the product eco-friendly? Is the packaging eco-friendly? The bottom line is for the general consumer is that going to be considered misleading and vague because they don't have an idea of what you're talking about. So that's greenwashing.

Another example of greenwashing is when companies emphasize the green aspects of their product or their practices while minimizing environmental problematic aspects. So, for example, let's say there's this product that's really environmentally problematic. The company decides to package the product in materials that are completely recyclable or made with recycled materials. That's a good thing. But the company markets itself as saying, well, this is environmental. This is a green product. Well, it's not. The product itself is not green. Maybe the packaging is. But if a company tries to market itself that way, it can get in trouble from greenwashing.

And then the last kind of general category is misleading green imagery. Think of mountains and streams and beautiful natural settings. As a consumer, if you see a product and it has those images, you're likely to think this is natural, this is something environmental, this is beneficial. An example of this concept, that's taken from the Green Guides, is a company selling laser printers and in their advertisement they have the laser printer in a natural setting. And the company's tagline is: buy our printer, make a change. Well, a consumer looks at that and they might think this printer is more environmentally friendly than a competitor's. Maybe I will buy this. But that's misleading because unless the company has the science to back that up and can qualify its claim, that's going to be an example of greenwashing.

Categories: Environmental Litigation, Greenwashing