Green Initiatives Guide To Greenwashing – Part 2: Where Does Greenwashing Commonly Occur?

Published on by Green Initiatives

Have you ever chose a “green and organic” package of chips or a “100% natural” bathroom product just because the label/packaging said so? Greenwashing is present in more places than one can imagine, it might even be happening at your home.

In our last article we questioned and introduced our readers to the term greenwashingthe “act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” (1)

Greenwashing is present in almost all industries, from airlines to household goods. It is therefore important to be completely aware of the true environmental impacts of the products we buy, regardless of the label or color used. If we are aware of their impact, would we still buy it?

Below we have listed the most common industries where Greenwashing is present and how it disguises itself:

Food and Beverage Industry

The food and beverage industry is a good example, where, if you take a closer look, products are often not as sustainable as they are made to appear. One practice that is clearly unsustainable and easy to spot is the overuse of packaging. In addition to this environmental transgression, there are three classification levels of organic foods by the USDA that are easily misinterpreted:

  • '100% Organic' means every single ingredient is organic.
  • 'Organic' can be used when 95% or more of the ingredients are organic.
  • 'Made with Organic Ingredients' is a term reserved for products with at least 70% organic ingredients.

In the last two cases, the remaining 5% or 30% of the ingredients may very well include foods treated with chemicals that can negatively impact the environment and our health.

The food industry has also been guilty of the sin of fibbing. In 2010, for example, chicken giant Tyson Foods was sued for falsely claiming that its chickens were “raised without antibiotics” when it was found they were injecting antibiotics into the eggs before they hatched and raising them on bird-feed laced with antimicrobials.

Classification of organic food by the USDA. (6)


The cosmetic industry offers another example. While all cosmetics must pass rigorous testing before reaching the market, the lack of a regulatory classification system raises challenges. Classic  examples are:

  • The term “natural” has guidelines, but no legal definition, and “organic” is only defined within the bounds of agriculture (3). The use of one certified organic (agricultural) component would allow a company to label a product as such, leaving the door open to the use of other pesticide-laden or otherwise environmentally damaging ingredients.
  • The industry is abound with labels such as “chemical free”, “dermatologically tested”, “herbal”, “botanical” or “holistic” which convey added value but mean virtually nothing pro-environment or health.
  • Even “Not tested on animals” lacks legal definition and does not guarantee that each raw material sourced has not been tested on animals. (4)

For example, Nivea ‘Pure and Natural’ cream came under the limelight for claiming to be 95% natural while carrying a carcinogenic preservative. Similarly, a range of products from US cosmetic company Organix were found to contain no organic ingredients, were not certified and contained known harmful ingredients.(5)

Electronics and Household Appliances

Consumer awareness has been on the rise regarding electrical appliances and electronic gadgets, specially regarding energy efficiency. People are more prone to look at energy star ratings while purchasing new computers, TVs, fridges and ovens. However these ratings are often either unsubstantiated or irrelevant compared to the problems related to manufacturing (resource extraction and depletion) and end of life management (E-waste and toxicity of landfills).

Computer advertisements often encourage buyers to use new “energy saving models” which consume less power to run. Research shows that 80% of energy consumption during the lifecycle of a computer is in the production process, so your carbon footprint would be lower if you just held on to your older one. In fact, a UN study found that making a computer and a monitor takes at least 240 kg (530 pounds) of fossil fuels, 22 kg (48 pounds) of chemicals and 1.5 metric tons of water. (6)

Toys and Baby Products

The ubiquity of plastic as the material of choice in the toy industry (being cheap, mouldable to any shape and capable of mass production), leads not only to massive waste problems but also health issues due to the use of toxic plasticisers such as BPAs and phthalates and exposure to heavy metals in the manufacturing processes.

While toymakers are in fact looking for more sustainable alternatives like bio-based plastics, bio-composite plastics and biodegradable plastics, however toys and baby products were found to have a greater than average rate of environmental claims and have a higher risk of greenwashing, as per a TerraChoice marketing study in 2009.(7)

Labels such as “natural”, “free of toxins” and “biodegradable” on playing blocks and toys can be vague and misleading if not accompanied by supporting information or proof.

A particular case in point is biodegradable balloons, made of natural latex, which commit the sin of the hidden trade-off. “Biodegradable” conjures the image of a product safely decomposing in nature, returning to its source. In truth, this process takes place over many months, during which the balloons can still harm living organisms. Balloons have been found in the stomachs of birds, turtles and marine mammals, potentially causing illness or death (8). Biodegradable balloons may be a better choice than non-degradable ones, but, in reality, they still threaten our natural environment.

Seagull eating a balloon (9)

Fashion Industry

Many fashion industry labels employ "green" and "ethical" marketing to target "conscious" consumers: H&M's Conscious collection, made of organic cotton and recycled polyester; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection; Adidas’ Design for Environment gear; Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative; Zara’s eco-efficient stores; and the Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, to benefit the lives of female garment workers (10).

Brands have been guilty of making vague claims and omitting relevant facts by claiming they use eco-friendly bamboo-clothing when they in fact sold rayon produced from bamboo - but processed in a way that uses harsh chemicals and can also release hazardous air pollutants. H&M boasts about being recognised by the non-profit Textile Exchange as the largest user of organic cotton, but only 13% of the cotton it uses is organic. H&M also has a garment recycling program that has been identified as a green marketing tactic, since only 0.2% of H&M’s textiles are recycled.(11)

Forever 21 tried to get good environmental PR through it’s installation of the largest single rooftop solar panel in LA, yet continued its business expansion of producing greater quantities of discounted cut-price clothing which promotes a wear and throw mentality and generates landfill.

Automobiles and Transport Sector

One of the most recent greenwashing incidents to rock the world was the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The automaker was forced to admit that 11 million vehicles worldwide were equipped with software enabling the cars to improve their performance during diesel emissions tests (12). Not only were they cheating the tests to hone an environmentally friendly brand, but the vehicles were actually emitting more pollutants than legally acceptable. The automaker paid over $22 billion in settlements and fines in the United States alone (13).

Volkswagen’s emissions scandal tarnished its reputation. (14)

Greenwashing in Large Corporations

Greenwashing is rampant not only in consumer products ranging from household cleaning products, office stationary, garden products to building materials, but is also a common practise by large corporations and institutions to portray a greener image than they can actually lay claim to.

Few examples include:

  • Several hotels, for example, offer guests the choice of re-using towels under the guise of a greening venture in order to reduce laundry loads, without having any concrete recycling program or comprehensive sustainability policy in other respects.
  • One of China’s largest retailers, entered a strategic partnership with WWF to present a more sustainable image, which included using electric delivery vehicles and launching a clothes recycling program, yet went on to market “top class” southern bluefin tuna, which is an overfished and critically endangered specie. (15)
  • Manufacturers of dirty energy spend millions on green advertising messages while continuing their hugely destructive extraction processes, increasing green house gas emissions and lobbying to influence climate change policies in their favour.(16)

Despite the prevalence of greenwashing throughout many industries, there are countless honest companies taking the appropriate steps to create better products and services with the intent of not harming the planet. It is important that we support and celebrate these organisations to promote the future growth of truly sustainable solutions. On our next article we will discuss and present ways of combating and disrupting greenwashing.

The above is the second article in a 3-part series on Greenwashing. The articles were written by a group of volunteers over a period of time. (Here's links to Part 1 Part 3)

Green Initiatives would like to give a sincere thanks to each one of them: Tania ChenGus RickAndrew FreidenthalMargrethe WandallParul RewalEllie Davenport and Maria Souza.