What is greenwashing and how do you avoid it?

Sally Fox

Lumen & Fox | Brand copy for big-hearted businesses | Messaging, tone of voice, web copywriting

As we arrive at shopping season at the end of the toughest year in living memory, it seems many are planning to shop more ethically and sustainably.

This gives us as brands, copywriters and marketers a golden opportunity to earn their trust by communicating our values and processes in a way that’s simple and honest.

“But Sal, surely that’s obvious!” I hear you cry. Sadly not.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the act of misrepresenting a brand or product’s benefit to the environment. This marketing-spin-gone-wrong has been around since the ‘80s. Less scrupulous companies roll the dice and decide to market products as green because it’s flavour of the month. And it’s not okay.

*Shakes fist like a Scooby-Doo villain*

Why does greenwashing matter?

Greenwashing matters because customers looking to buy ethical products deserve to know the truth about their choices. It matters because it diverts spending from genuinely sustainable products. It matters because it distracts us from discovering better alternatives, slowing down the fight to save our planet.

Before we look at how best to communicate your ethical intentions, let’s take a stroll through what not to do in my greenwashing 101.

Misrepresentative packaging

Some brands mislead us with packaging that makes us think their product is greener than it is. Bottled water, despite being one of the least sustainable products on the planet, is usually decorated with scenes from unspoilt areas of natural beauty.

Meaningless claims and half-truths

These brands put out adverts or copy that make bold claims, like, “Hey! We’re the greenest on the market.” If that market is fossil fuel, it’s not much of a statement. Similarly, if they focus attention on one small benefit, disguising the real nature of their product. You could describe a nuclear power plant as odourless and quiet, but does that mean it’s green?

When a brand makes a big splash about being green, we aren’t always getting the full story. McDonald’s turned heads with their plastic-free straws. Then it emerged that just like their plastic predecessors, the paper replacement is non-recyclable.

Diversion tactics

This is the equivalent of your mate shouting, “Hey, look over there” while they steal chips from your plate. We’ve all seen fast fashion brands promoting their 10-piece sustainable clothing ranges ignoring the 7,000 other less ethical products on sale.

Look harder at some green policies, and you might find they’re a pair of dark glasses and a wig for a much bigger issue. Starbucks introduces recyclable cups. Great news! But the reality is that single-use cup waste remains a huge problem and the quick fix derails progress towards a reusable cup system.

Passing accountability

It’s problematic when the onus is on the consumer, not the brand, to make the green commitment. H&M collects our used clothing in return for a discount. Sure, it’s better than nothing. But it lulls us into a false sense of doing good and we’re encouraged to buy more clothes, perpetuating the problem they claim to be helping to solve.

Oil company Shell recently posted a Twitter poll asking, “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” Seems a bit rich coming from a business that has denied climate change for decades whilst emitting more greenhouse gases than the whole of Canada.

Empty claims and jargon smoke-screens

Some brands will try to sidestep eco concerns with buzzwords. In 2017, L’Oreal came under fire for their “vegan” range which was tested on animals. Dropping words like pure, organic and natural is an easy way to appeal to consciously-minded consumers. But what do those terms actually mean and are they backed up by evidence?

Some companies use jargon to confuse us into believing they’re sustainable. “It’s a patented best-in-class Earth-centric solution”. Anyone?

Just downright lies

Some brands aren’t as liberal with the truth as they should be. They may make claims they can’t back up or promises they can’t keep. They might display questionable endorsements from non-approved bodies.

A few are even guilty of downright lies. In one infamous greenwashing case, Volkswagen cheated pollution emissions tests to make their cars seem greener. Real smooth.

These are some of the worst offenders. The majority of greenwashing is no more sinister than a bit of over-enthusiasm. On the whole, attempts to move towards greener processes and policies should be applauded. And as we all know, it’s nigh on impossible to be perfectly sustainable all the time.

Going green is a process. And we should celebrate that. Talk about how far you’ve come as well as how far you know you have to go.

The best we can aim for as brands, copywriters and marketers is to show our customers that our values align with theirs and that we’re doing our best to do the right thing.

How to avoid greenwashing

Share your values

You can’t be everything to everyone. Allow your customers to make an informed choice by letting them know which issues you prioritise, whether it’s ocean plastic or women’s rights.

Be honest

Be accurate and honest about your products, what they contain and how they were made.

Avoid making unsubstantiated claims

Are you really the best/greenest/lowest emission? Can you prove it? Only use words like natural, vegan or organic if you can back them up.

Share your ambitions

Tell your customers what’s working and what isn’t and where you’re headed. This isn’t about being perfect, it’s about going in the right direction.

Get certified

The Forest Stewardship Council certifies products made from sustainable forestry. Find out what certifications your product qualifies for.

Keep it simple

When describing your product or processes, use simple terms that anyone can understand. Avoid jargon.

Keep everyone informed

Stay up to date with the latest discoveries in your field. Keep your social team informed so that they can answer customer queries with clarity and honesty

Take responsibility

Remember that as a brand, the responsibility to be green lies with you, not your customers. If your green processes rely on hoping your customers commit to a certain action, they need work.

Avoid eco-preaching

Talking down to your customers is rarely effective. Show rather than tell.

If you’d like help sharing your eco message in 2021, send me an email.

First published on


3rd July 2022

Fraser Southey

Interesting and sensible until the ‘values’ bit – which feels too vague to me and why use the word ‘values’ in a heading when the copy it heads up is about priorities. These are two different things.

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