‘100% natural’, ‘herbal’, ‘organic’, ‘pure’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘ayurvedic’, ‘100% botanical extracts’, ‘safe for environment’

We can find these words scribbled onto the various products lying around our house, from food items to cosmetics, and we may also agree to quite an extent that those products are lying around our house because those flashy words along with ‘green’ or attractive packaging convinced us into buying ‘conscious’?

But do we, as consumers, realize that those words may be, well, just words, with no essential meaning and backing behind them, just vague claims that are not necessarily true? If that is the case, then that is what is called as ‘greenwashing’, and that is what ensnares us into buying those seemingly green and eco-friendly products.

“Green Washing refers where organizations misrepresented themselves as environmentally safe & responsible.”

“…presenting a product or service by advocating green, natural, environmentally safe when it is not in reality is called green washing.”

It was the environmental activist Jay Westerveld who coined this term in 1986 in response to the hypocrisy he discerned while he was at a beach resort. “The hotel posted notices about reusing towels to protect nearby reefs while it was in the middle of expanding into those very waters.”

How to identify greenwashing?

There is a framework called as the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’ developed in 2007 by a Canadian environmental marketing agency, ‘terrachoice’ which can help in identifying claims that are nothing but greenwashing:

1. Sin of the hidden trade-off: providing inadequate set of attributes, such as ‘herbal’, while ignoring other important environmental issues and impacts.

2. Sin of no proof: an environmental claim with no real evidence to prove it.

3. Sin of vagueness: too broad of a claim which is not clearly or legally defined, ex. ‘all natural’, ‘pure’.

4. Sin of worshipping false labels: using fake labels, claiming third party endorsements where no such endorsement exists.

5. Sin of irrelevance: an environmental claim which may be truthful but insignificant, ex. ‘cfc free’.

6. Sin of lesser two evils: claim that may be true to a particular group or product but has an overall harmful impact to the environment, ex. ‘organic cigarettes’.

7. Sin of fibbing: simply false claims, outright lies, ex. Companies claiming to be energy star certified when they are actually not.

Why does it happen?

As consumers are getting more and more aware about the environmental problems, they are getting more and more conscious about the kind of products they buy and the kind of environmental impact those products make, and so in order to cater to this changing pattern and preference of consumers, the corporates and brands in the market have made it imperative to be “environmentally conscious and sustainable”, to make themselves appear to be greener so as to not loose out this consumer base, and make more profits out of these claims while fooling their customers.

The factors that drive greenwashing include a lack of definition and clarity regarding what is ‘green behavior’, or what is ‘sustainable’, there is no universally accepted definition of such terms, and so it makes it easier and possible for the brands to toy with this laxity for their own profits.

Another factor is an absence of strict rules and regulations regarding greenwashing. The legislation may be there but it may be vague and open to interpretation, which leads to its misuse and undermines its very existence.

On the other hand, “governmental bodies such as the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority weigh in on greenwashing issues while European law requires that advertisers list their CO2­ emissions in advertisements. As for the companies themselves, many push for continued self-regulation or encourage the involvement of self-regulation organizations such as the European Advertising Standards Alliance and the National Advertising Division of Council of Better Business Bureaus in the United States.”

Environmental groups like Greenpeace, CorpWatch, GreenBiz, friends of Europe, etc. play an important role by focusing on corporate environmental involvement and greenwashing.

“The Web site Greenwashingindex.com even allows users to post examples of suspected greenwashing. Participants vote and rate the deceptiveness of advertising.”

What can be done to limit it?

We need to have new laws and government regulatory bodies to monitor and limit, if not eliminate this practice. Advertising regulations need to be stricter. Companies and brands need to be held accountable for their actions and inactions and fined and punished accordingly. They need to be made transparent regarding their practices and disclose all of their impacts, whether positive or negative in comprehensive and clear ways. New labels which are clear need to be created and standardized to limit confusion and the questioning of authenticity. There is a need for raising more and more awareness through a collective action by the government, NGOs, environmentalists, so that consumers can be mobilized to actually understand, differentiate, and then demand what is right for them.

Most importantly, companies need to realize that they should be working on long term ethical and sustainable goals, instead of feeding on their vested interests.


Priyanka Aggarwal, and Aarti Kadyan, “Greenwashing: The Darker Side Of CSr.” Indian Journal of Applied Research

Dr. Sanjay Keshaorao Katait, “Green Washing in India an Alarming Issue: Misleading and Deceptive Environmental Claims in Advertising.” International Journal of Commerce and Management Research

Marthe Ferrer, “What Is Greenwashing and Why Is It a Problem?” Living

Robert lamb, “How Greenwashing Works.” HowStuffWorks

Jenna Tsui, “The Negative Effects of Corporate Greenwashing.” Sea Going Green

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