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Checklist: Greenwashing – how green should your marketing be?

Greenwashing: Sustainability is playing an increasingly important role in marketing.
Image: © Jenny Sturm / Adobe Stock

What is greenwashing?

The term was first used in an essay by Jay Westerfeld in 1986, when the American environmental activist criticized the strategy used by the hotel industry in the U.S. In an attempt to make guests more aware of environmental issues, hotel operators asked them to use the towels in their rooms for several days, instead of putting them in the laundry every day. Although the stated goal was reducing water and energy consumption, hotel operators were actually motivated by a desire to reduce cleaning costs. Westerfeld referred to this as greenwashing – making yourself look more environmentally aware than you actually are.

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Examples of greenwashing

Greenwashing is part and parcel of today’s society, which is increasingly focused on environmental issues. And with good reason, given past events and incidents:

  • The extensive environmental campaigns by BP are a prime example. The British oil company focused on its commitment to expanding renewable energy, all the while causing serious environmental hazards like the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
  • A more recent example from 2019 was Aldi’s decision to start charging one cent for its – previously free – plastic produce bags. Environmental organizations criticized this decision, saying that it generated more sales and considerable airtime in the news, without actually helping to resolve the underlying problem of plastic waste in retail.
  • RWE also came in for criticism in 2010 when the energy company launched an advertising video featuring a smiling animated figure – the energy giant – erecting wind and water turbines in a comic book world. Unlike the utopian vision suggested in the video, however, the RWE organization at the time was anything but sustainable. The proportion of renewable energy providers in its energy portfolio back then was much smaller than it is today.

Consequences of greenwashing for companies

Any suspicion of greenwashing can potentially damage the company’s reputation and cause a loss of credibility, which can have a significant detrimental impact on customers’ purchasing behavior. If environmental activists and consumer advocates call out allegedly sustainable offers and brands as being less green than they are advertised to be, many consumers will respond by looking for alternatives. But that presents a dilemma for marketers in particular, as their role is to meet the growing demand for environmental solutions so that brands and products can remain competitive.

Successfully avoiding greenwashing in your marketing strategy

It’s true that greenwashing is not always done intentionally, and green advertising messages are often used with good intentions. That means that marketers must approach the topic of sustainability with great sensitivity. Ultimately, consumer confidence and trust are at stake – and those are among the most important success factors in today’s world.

Green marketing should therefore be transparent and based on facts. Instead of simply using an environmental message in your advertising, make sure to provide proof! If you’re wondering how to avoid greenwashing in your marketing strategy, we have put together a practical checklist for you with the six most important rules of thumb to remember.

Download the checklist for free