How can shoppers sniff out when a brand is greenwashing?

Sustainability pledges and green certifications feature in the marketing vernacular of many direct-to-consumer brands. How can consumers know what's legit?

A third of consumers say they have stopped shopping with brands over environmental or ethical concerns. (Photo: charlesdeluvio on Unsplash)


Click through to the website of a brand listed in Thingtesting's directory, and more often than not, you will find yourself faced with sustainability promises and eco pledges.

It’s now commonplace for brands to publish reams of information in order to justify the existence of their product through a sustainability lens. It’s a marketing tactic with one core — contradictory — goal. To sell more stuff.

And it does work. According to the Stern School of Business, sales of sustainably marketed products have grown 7.1 times faster compared to those that didn’t make such claims since 2015. Meanwhile, a 2021 report from Deloitte found that one in three customers has stopped shopping with a brand because of ethical or sustainability-related concerns.

By marketing their products as “sustainable” and “planet friendly,” brands are cozying up to the wallets of conscious shoppers. The problem is, many of the terms they use are unregulated — making it difficult for customers to decide which brands are actually doing right by people and planet. And even when brands do take the extra step of certifying that their business is “carbon negative” or “plastic neutral,” for example, they are often referring to a very narrow part of their products' true impact.

Even feel-good initiatives such as letting customers offset the impact of having their order shipped to their door can be read as cynical ploys to get people through the checkout.

“It’s making people feel comfortable buying high-impact products,” says Jessi Baker, the founder of supply chain and product transparency company Provenance. “Good for the planet, eco-friendly. What does that really mean?”

Brands continue to be called out for “greenwashing” — the practice of making claims that convince shoppers they’re buying something that’s more sustainable or ethical than it really is in reality. Earlier this year, ethical chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely — which has made a name for itself campaigning against the use of slave labor in the chocolate industry — admitted to 1,700 cases of supply chain child labor in its supply chain. In January, the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Association banned adverts from plant-milk brand Oatly because of misleading environmental claims, while in the U.S., sneaker maker Allbirds is facing a lawsuit over the way it uses sustainability claims to market its products.

Talking the talk

As shoppers have become more conscious of the impact their purchasing choices have on the planet, brands have felt the pressure to communicate what they are doing on the issue.

Many of the statements they make sound brilliant. A brand that takes used products back from customers, for example, can provide reassurance for people who don’t have access to industrial recycling facilities. But it’s not always clear what actually happens to these items once they have been sent back, or if these schemes are even able to do what they promise. Brands that are introducing rental programs often struggle to quantify if their initiatives actually stop people from buying new products from them, while those that champion their “plastic neutral” status are often still using virgin plastics in their own packaging, despite funding litter picking projects elsewhere in the world.

The flawed way in which brands push these messages reveals an inherent tension between recognizing the threat that climate change poses and the imperative companies have to sell their products and make money.

Marketers who do not have an education or background in sustainability find themselves in the tricky position of having to parse complex environmental policies in a way that will not only be understandable to the general consumer, but excite them into buying a product. Teams strapped for expertise may choose to promote an initiative that sounds good, but which they don’t have the resources or knowledge to properly vet themselves. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, 49% of marketers say they are wary of working on sustainability marketing campaigns.

“Marketing teams don’t have the confidence often to talk about sustainability issues,” Baker agrees. “I don’t think they mean to greenwash, but they can [talk about sustainability] in a way that ends up misleading the consumer.”

Certifications and other outside organizations that vet sustainability claims on behalf of brands are popular for this reason. In 2021, nonprofit B Lab Global said applications for its B Corp certification had risen 28% year-on-year. The application process requires brands to disclose information about their supply chain, employment policies and so on. On its website, Climate Neutral (which verifies that brands have measured, offset and have a plan to reduce their carbon emissions) says it has certified 264 brands since it launched in 2019.

Such verification schemes are not without their problems, though. A recent report from Changing Markets found that the vast majority of certifications used in the fashion industry that it analyzed fail to uphold their own standards and do not set strict requirements for companies to make improvements. “Brands are offloading their responsibility for trust around sustainability claims onto these certification schemes — which means it’s even more concerning if they’re actually not that robust,” says George Harding-Rolls, a campaign manager at Changing Markets. B Lab, for example, has been criticized for certifying companies that have been accused of tax avoidance and union busting.

Good or greenwashing?

In a world that is already suffering the effects of climate change, consumers understandably feel compelled to make the best choices they can when it comes to their personal consumption. Brands using sustainability as a marketing tool does not make this task easy.

But it is possible to interrogate a brand’s motives before spending money with them. Work is being done by governmental agencies around the world to combat egregious claims made by brands. The U.K,’s Competition and Markets Authority announced earlier this year that it will name and shame fashion brands that are duping customers with sustainability claims, while the E.U. is also working on legislation that will require companies to substantiate environmental claims. The FTC has said it will update its “Green Guides” this year to clamp down on marketing claims.

In the meantime, Baker advises that consumers take brand’s eco claims with a pinch of salt unless they can be verified, and be wary of companies that seem to be relying on “suggestive design” such as creating their own “eco-friendly” logos or littering their websites with green and leafy imagery.

On the other hand, brands that are willing to show a fuller picture of what’s going on in their business, and talk about where they need to make improvements, could be considered more trustworthy. She also recommends regularly Googling the brands you shop with to see if they have been up to no good.

While brands talking up their flaws does appear to be an emerging sustainability marketing tactic, Baker says it is preferable to brands pretending they are doing things perfectly. “It should be encouraged,” she says.