Greenwashing: What is it and why is it a problem?

Read Time:   |  16th June 2021

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Can every major brand be trying to do the right thing or are they just greenwashing? Charlotte Willis discovers sometimes it’s too good to be true...


Being green has never sold quite as well as it does in 2021. Hoping to gain a slice of the ethically-made, sustainable pie and appeal to conscious consumers, brands are falling over themselves to demonstrate their enlightened credentials with bold advertising campaigns and marketing tactics.

Why? Because they have consumers like us in their sights. In fact, it’s rare to go about your online shop, Instagram browse, or real-world buying experiences (remember those!?) without spotting an eco-friendly factoid, persuading you to make a purchase by pulling on your conscience.

From recycling banks in fashion outlets to CO2 claims on vegan milk cartons, the modern consumer is inundated with a range of attempts by brands and corporations to convince you of their ethical practices.

What is the definition of greenwashing?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, greenwashing is the process through which businesses “make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is” with their marketing and advertising efforts.

Greenwashing is a company’s way of symbolically promoting a sense of concern for ethical standards, without making any meaningful changes to their ways. And wow, it’s common.

Before we celebrate corporations becoming woke to the environment, it’s important to bear in mind that eco-friendly and sustainable claims aren’t always substantiated.

This is a marketing practice known as greenwashing. It’s a clever ploy, born from the environmental movement over the last five years.

Brands want you to believe they are making positive changes. You know, doing their bit to protect and conserve the environment.

So they spin a few truths, make a few bold statements, and produce a few claims about their product or service.

At face value, these are pretty impactful and make us believe change is on the way. But when investigated further, it’s the same old story – claims that don’t hold up to scrutiny or are covering something far more sinister.


Why is greenwashing a problem?

OK, so we all know that marketing gurus and PR teams can spin a few harmless truths here and there, so how is greenwashing different?

First of all, when you lean towards an ethical lifestyle, you’re willing to support the cause, and you’re probably going to spend a little extra on products that are planet-positive.

Some may even argue that the price indicates whether a product will do better than more affordable counterparts. Brands know this.

Charging a premium for earth-saving ingredients and materials is common, and yes, sometimes it is fully justified. But, without questioning these claims, how are we to know?

A marketplace full of greenwashing also makes it challenging to choose products that align with a conscious lifestyle.

Examples of greenwashing

Phrases such as “eco-friendly”, “ethically made”, and “non-toxic”, alongside bold advertising claims and eco power-moves, are thrown about by brands who want you to believe their company is so forward-thinking that their office is carbon-neutral and their team eats only locally-grown organic veg.

In reality, some of these claims are rather oxymoronic. Without naming any names, here are a few examples.

Producing paper straws to replace your plastic counterparts, only to tell us that they aren’t actually made from a type of recyclable paper? Greenwashing.

Convincing us that your clothing is made within a “fair supply chain”, but being found to employ unpaid garment workers? Greenwashing.

Telling us your haircare range is “vegan-friendly” while you still test on animals? Greenwashing.

Beyond the twisted truths of greenwashing lie the ethical consequences of falsified claims. By supporting brands who talk the talk but fail to do the work, we risk contributing to environmental damage or exploitation, despite our good intentions.

Simultaneously, we divert our positive spending power away from brands that are actually making considered and impactful changes.

Promoting a haircare range as “vegan-friendly” while still testing on animals is an example of greenwashing

Promoting a haircare range as “vegan-friendly” while still testing on animals is an example of greenwashing

How to spot greenwashing

Perhaps the most important message is to think critically and not take claims at first glance.

A brand might appear to be positive and empowering, posting the right images on Instagram and saying all the right things to grab your interest, but hold steady and get the facts. Here are some ways to spot greenwashing.

Greenwashing language and false claims

As mentioned, show caution to any product associated with terminology such as “cruelty-free”, “sustainable”, “ethically-sourced”, and “herbal”.

All of these adjectives sound very impressive, but do they hold up? Check out the ingredients list and supply chain, what packaging do they use and are their workers paid fairly?

If the information supporting these claims is vague or wishy-washy, chances are there’s more to the story.

If in doubt, have a quick search on Ethical Consumer, which will tell you what to look out for. Send the company a message too, don’t be shy of using your own investigative work.

Use comparison sites for fashion brands to spot greenwashing

Clothing brands are notorious for making unsubstantiated claims surrounding sustainability and ethical practices.

If you want to find out how ethical and transparent your clothes are, is a fantastic place to search.

Enter a brand name and the site provides information on the brand’s rating for sustainability and fairness regarding the planet, animals, and people.

More ethically-minded brands also tend to have a breakdown of their production lines and sustainable processes on their website, which is a good indicator of transparency.

Beware of false certifications

Consumers love certification. The Vegan Trademark, for example, is a much trusted and sought-after logo allocated to products meeting The Vegan Society’s standards for approval.

However, manufacturers love to use meaningless earth logos, leaves, trees, and animals to portray a certification that doesn’t exist.

Read the info around the logos and look for genuine certifications, legally registered.

Check the small print

Now with 20% less plastic? Uses 40% less CO2 than regular milk? Hand-finished in the UK? Great claims, but check the details, because some bold claims don’t stand up.

Look for the information source, particularly for statistical or percentile factoids. Check what phrases such as “hand-finished” mean, particularly for garments – hand-finishing can be as simple as attaching a label postproduction.

Before you buy, question the company’s ethos and intentions. If it seems like a ploy to make a green pound, investigate! Do some digging before supporting greenwashed brands.

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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