What is Greenwashing?

What is Greenwashing?

Hanna Leach

You might have heard the term ‘greenwashing’ before and are wondering what it means, and how it relates to sustainability. This article is going to define the term, address key words that companies might use when greenwashing, and further explain how to spot ‘greenwashing red flags.’

So, let’s start off with the basics. Greenwashing is a term used to describe if a company displays their products as “sustainable” or “environmentally-friendly,” when in fact they are not sustainable at all. As defined by Merriam Webster, greenwashing is “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.” You might be wondering how a company could get away with false advertising like this, and you’re not alone! Many who know about this issue are working to try to solve it.

You can find evidence of greenwashing many places throughout grocery stores. Labels will use green colors, be packaged in brown, and use words like green, eco-friendly, zero-waste, compostable, sustainable, or all-natural. These terms are vague, and not all legally defined by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (their most recent updated ‘green guide’ being made in 2012). While companies using ‘green’ words are not always technically making false claims, they have been found to be outright lying. Some think if they are doing anything ever so slightly “eco-friendly,” using these terms is deemed reasonable.

For example, you might see Coca-Cola branding their products as sustainable because they make all of their products in recyclable packaging. Unfortunately, they don’t mention that they produce 200,000 plastic bottles every single minute, making them the world’s biggest plastic polluter. Most of these bottles are made of PET or 100% recycled PET, a type of plastic that can only be recycled 1-3 times in the first place before becoming unrecyclable, and consequently resulting in permanent waste after its last use.

More examples include products claiming to be compostable, when in fact they can only be industrially composted, a fact highlighted in an article by The Guardian. This means that they will not biodegrade in a landfill or in a home compost. Many brands moreover will claim to be compostable with no basis to that claim whatsoever. Some still say they are biodegradable, therefore also compostable, while the two words mean entirely different things. In all, greenwashing is a type of misinformation that might seem sustainable on the outside, but is revealed as a marketing ploy once proper research is done. It’s important for these companies to take responsibility for the plastic and waste they are producing, and not push all responsibility on consumers, as Green Peace Oceans Campaigner Graham Forbes said.

There are so many nuances to these eco-terms that they need to be regulated, but unfortunately aren’t. Until these vague labels have a quantifiable definition behind them, don’t rely on them. Thankfully many companies are being called out for false advertising claims and reform is on the way with one law firm, Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, recommending large companies make sure they can prove sustainability claims made in their marketing.

A good way to spot greenwashing is to first ask yourself if the company truly is what they say they are. Are they encouraging mass production of products that you’ll have to repurchase, or encouraging you to reuse items? Are they mass producing single-use plastics? The next step is to research the brand. Is there something about their claims that they aren’t telling you, like making something out to be compostable, when it’s actually not? Lastly, recognize that you can’t do this on you own. Let others help out – specifically certifications “like USDA Organic, B Corp Certification, and Fair Trade.”

If you want to ask a company about a product directly, veer away from these catch-all eco terms I mentioned earlier (green, eco-friendly, zero-waste, compostable, sustainable, or all-natural). For example, instead of asking if an item is ‘compostable,’ ask, “What do you mean when you say this item is ‘compostable?’”

Rather than asking if their items are 'eco-friendly,' say, “This is labeled as ‘eco-friendly,’ can you explain to me how it helps the earth?”

If you want to know if an item is ‘organic,’ ask if it has GMOs. If you want to know if a product is ‘all-natural,’ ask if it has harsh chemicals, or ask if you can see the chemical breakdown of the product.

No eco-business is perfect. No one striving to be zero-waste can be completely without waste. Even ‘all-natural’ ingredients like essential oils can be toxic if used in the wrong quantities. There’s nuance to each of these un-defined terms, and this nuance is important.

Unfortunately for truly sustainable businesses, we must still rely on these ‘catch-all’ sustainability terms because they are what the mass public knows. While we do use these terms, we have the data, information, mission, and values, to prove our claims of trying to be as eco-friendly as possible, and can quantify our numbers.

Good luck out there, and remember if you have any questions about greenwashing, we at Refillism are happy to answer them.


G, Sarah. Is your favorite 'green' product as eco-friendly as it claims to be? National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/what-is-greenwashing-how-to-spot

Is Coca-Cola's latest promise really a step forward? Plastic Soup Foundation. https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/2022/02/is-coca-colas-latest-promise-really-a-step-forward/

Y, Olivia. How Many Times Can Plastic Be Recycled? Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/how-many-times-can-plastic-be-recycled-5184396

L, Sandra. Coca-Cola among brands greenwashing over packaging, report says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/30/coca-cola-among-brands-greenwashing-over-packaging-report-says

G. Katherine. What Is Greenwashing? Definitions and Examples. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-greenwashing-definition-and-examples-5188207#toc-examples

W, Phoebe. 'It's greenwash': most home compostable plastics don't work, report says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/03/greenwash-home-compostable-plastics-dont-work-aoe

Shawn Collins and Lisa Northrup. The Legal Risks of Greenwashing Are Real. Bloomberg Law. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/environment-and-energy/the-legal-risks-of-greenwashing-are-real

What are the U.S. Green Guides and can they stamp out 'greenwashing'? Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/what-are-us-green-guides-can-they-stamp-out-greenwashing-2023-04-27/

FTC Issues Revised "Green Guides." Federal Trade Commission. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2012/10/ftc-issues-revised-green-guides

Endlessly Refreshing: Coca-Cola North America Rolls Out Bottles Made from 100% Recycled PET Plastic. The Coca-Cola Company. https://www.coca-colacompany.com/media-center/packaging-sustainability-in-united-states

Are all of your products recyclable? The Coca-Cola Company. https://www.coca-cola.com/us/en/about-us/faq/are-all-of-your-products-recyclable

Greenwashing. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/greenwashing

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.