What's The Dirt On Greenwashing?


Greenwashing” is when organizations advertise their products as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Some companies use misleading or outright false statements in their marketing to give consumers the impression that their products are eco-friendly or benefit the environment. A survey by Lending Tree found that 55% of Americans are willing to spend more money on products they perceive to be more sustainable and eco-friendly. Companies know this and promote their products and services with a "green sheen."

Greenwashing runs the gamut from benign and silly marketing maneuvers to more blatant fallacies and lies. For example, when companies slap labels like “gluten-free” onto products such as rice, potato chips, or almonds -- items that never contained gluten in the first place -- it seems silly and contrived. However, when the fossil fuel industry markets “clean” coal and “natural” gas as sustainable energy, even though their carbon and methane emissions, respectively, make an indelible environmental impact, it’s definitely ironic and questionable.  What’s even more unethical is when companies reduce their carbon footprint in the U.S. but increase emissions in other countries where they operate. Greenwashing may utilize calming images of flowers, bees, farm animals, meadows, or the seaside to play on human emotions and suggest their product is sustainable even if that is far from the truth.

How many times have you seen a product labelled with a green leaf or words like “natural”? In his article for New York Times Magazine, “Why ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore,” Michael Pollan wrote how many assumptions are made when the word “natural” is used. When the article was published in 2015, approximately 200 class-action suits had been filed against food manufacturers for using marketing phrases such as “natural” Cheetos Puffs, “all-natural” Sun Chips, “all-natural” Naked Juice, and “100 percent all-natural” Tyson chicken nuggets, even though they contained high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colorings, chemical preservatives, or genetically modified organisms that the typical consumer wouldn’t associate with being “natural.”

 The FDA will not give a formal definition of the word "natural," but considers the term to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” Technically, everything is made up of molecules and originated from something found or manufactured on earth, but if we agree that the opposite of natural is synthetic or artificial, it’s not that hard to differentiate what’s more natural on the spectrum: cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, chicken vs. chicken nuggets, or G.M.O.s vs. heirloom seeds. Pollan pointed out that the most natural and unprocessed foods in the supermarket are seldom labeled “natural,” so a good rule of thumb for not falling prey to greenwashing is to follow Pollan’s suggestion that “if any food product feels compelled to tell you it’s natural, it in all likelihood is not.”

In 2021, the European Commission found that of the websites that make greenwashing claims, 59% had no evidence to support claims of environmental benefits, 42% made false, exaggerated, or deceptive claims, and 37% made claims that were vague or general. Unless a term is regulated, claims that a product is “all natural,” “carbon-neutral,” or “environmentally friendly” can mislead consumers and falsely imply third-party support. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) issued revised "Green Guides" in 2010, and in 2013 began enforcing that claims companies make about the environmental attributes of their products must be truthful and non-deceptive. 

Some household brands that use greenwashing:

Coca-Cola claims to capture “ocean bound” plastic but is in fact the world’s biggest plastic polluter.

H & M, Zara, and Uniqlo: In 2021, Changing Markets Foundation published a report on the truthfulness of major fashion brand sustainability claims and found that 60% were misleading. H& M was the worst offender, with 96% of their claims not holding up. The Swedish clothing company claimed in 2021 that its Conscious Line came from 100% organic cotton when only 20% did. Even when natural, organic fibers are used, garments are usually blended with synthetics like polyester that require extensive processing to make, and they are not biodegradable once their life is over. And, as we’ve discussed before, microfibers slough off in the laundry and contaminate water. Fast fashion brands like Zara and Uniqlo also have “sustainable clothing” lines that use polyester made from captured carbon emissions, but the over-production and over-buying of these garments cancel out these efforts. Despite greenwashing, fast fashion brands can never truly be green because their business model is based on producing as many clothes as possible in the quickest amount of time and for the cheapest price.

IKEA has some of the best environmental credentials of any large furniture firm but is the largest consumer of wood in the world. In fact, Earthsight calculated that IKEA consumes one tree every second. In 2020, its use of beechwood was linked to illegal logging in Eastern Europe’s Carpathian region, home to endangered wolves, bears, bison, and lynxes.

Apple's Restore Fund, designed to “invest in forestry projects to remove carbon from the environment,” is linked to Goldman Sachs and is more of an investment vehicle, not a philanthropic initiative.

Starbucks and McDonalds both switched from plastic to paper straws and implied they were going green, but it actually takes more energy to produce paper straws, and it turns out they are non-recyclable and get caught up in recycling machinery. Starbucks introduced a lid with a built-in straw that was recyclable but contained more plastic than the old lid and straw together. Better to forego the straw entirely or bring your own reusable stainless steel one. As of 2022, a class action suit is pending. McDonalds advertised their Big Macs as being sustainable despite packaging materials that are detrimental to the environment. McDonalds in the EU switched its logos from yellow and red to yellow and green to give the impression it was being environmenal. These are examples of a corporate giant pretending to address concerns about the environment but not coming up with real solutions.

Toothpaste brands like Tom's and Colgate use the #2 recycling symbols on their tubes, but consumers should be skeptical. According to RecycleSmart, all plastics must be rinsed clean so they don't gum up the machinery. Although some recycling agencies may accept toothpaste tubes with the recyclable symbol, consumers should check their local service before assuming they are truly acceptable.  

A word about personal wipes and baby wipes. By now, most of us know that wipes are not flushable, and yet many companies persist in "flushable" labelling. A study in Canada tested the flushability of 101 different brands and not one passed. While it’s true that wipes may break down eventually, they are made with long synthetic fibers made of plastic, polyester, or cotton microfibers that can take weeks to degrade fully compared to most toilet paper, which breaks down in about 24 hours. In the meantime, those wipes can cause pipe clogs, blockages to septic systems, and damage to sewage systems. One national study estimated that California agencies spend around $50 million annually to remove wipes from sewer systems. Fortunately, California became the fourth state to pass a law in 2021 that requires clear “Do Not Flush” labeling on non-flushable wipes.

Tips for avoiding greenwashing: 

  • Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t be automatically swayed by labels that use appealing images or slick buzzwords and make unrealistic claims. Companies sometimes market their product as the “lesser of two evils” and claim they are greener than their competitor, but that doesn’t make them sustainable. 
  • Check ingredient lists on processed foods and toiletries. Familiarize yourself with natural ingredients or look up questionable ones in the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep Guide.
  • Choose minimal or recyclable packaging. Companies may make a green product but then wrap it in unsustainable materials like plastic packaging. Consider the whole lifecycle of a product. Even if a product has a low environmental impact during manufacturing, their overall impact may be much higher if they aren’t recyclable or compostable at the end of their use.
  • Look for third-party verifications. Without certification, words like eco-friendly, non-toxic, earth-friendly, plant-based, pure, raw, healthy, and organic (without certification) mean nothing. Regulated official seals (examples pictured below) are legitimate and include certified B Corp, USDA Organic, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), OEKO-TEX 100, Carbon Trust Standard, PETA-certified vegan, and Energy Star, among others.


Not every company is out to scam us. There are many brands that genuinely care about maintaining sustainable business practices, and we should support them. Better World Shopper is always a great resource for making informed purchasing choices. Also check out these six sustainable brands (such as Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s soap products) that don’t greenwash, according to the sustainableagency.com.








Resources and further reading:











 Photo by Ana Lucia Cottone on Unsplash

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  • @Alison - I loved this article. The specific examples of companies that are greenwashing are really helpful- esp the fast fashion ones. I also was surprised to hear about the paper straws messing up the recycling equipment and that starbucks new lid uses more plastic! So much to improve. Thanks for writing this, Alison!
    • Wow, I appreciate that feedback so much!
  • Great article! Better World Shopper is a great resource to make informed purchasing choices. https://betterworldshopper.org/
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    • Thanks, Tina! I'm so glad you mentioned that website. I've included it in previous articles and just added it to this one too!
  • Great educational article and tips for identifying authentic eco-minded brands and avoid the greenwashers!
  • Thanks for a direct, thorough, and honest take on an important and uncomfortable topic. Brava Allison!
    • Thanks so much, Jim! The ComCom team misses you. Hope you are well!
      • I miss you all too!
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