What is Greenwashing?

Hazel Needham

Hazel Needham

Greenwashing image from greenbiz website. Paintbrush covering a trolley of groceries with a stripe of green paint

What is green washing?

What is green washing doing to the planet?

And what can we do to address it? 

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What is green washing?

What is green washing? ‘Green washing’ is like a next-level onomatopoeia. It sounds clean and eco-friendly. We’re interested. We approve. But this big old dirty deception is exactly what greenwashing is about. Green washing is when a company or organization promotes itself as clean and eco-friendly to attract interest and support from consumers. But really, these are unethical companies spending more time and money marketing about being eco-friendly than actually being eco-friendly. 

Essentially: it is a deceitful advertising gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.

Why are these unethical companies greenwashing?

Consumers are becoming more conscious about their purchases.

Dr. Matt Johnson, professor at Hult International Business School and founder of neuromarketing blog Pop Neuro, says, “There is accumulating evidence that consumers are impacted by the perceived sustainability of [a] brand, and further, that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from a sustainable brand over a non-sustainable competitor brand.” 

According to a 2019 survey from Hotwire, 47% of internet users worldwide said they had switched to a different product or service because a company violated their personal values.

Protecting the environment topped the list of reasons consumers switched, and 5% cited concerns about climate change. Not only are the top polluting companies destroying the environment, but they have the cheek to pretend that they are saving it to attract customers. 

Image of a sign from Berlin protest reading ‘Planet Over Profit’ taken from climate change and sustainability blog, https://jungle-dancer.com/planet-over-profit-myth-or-fact-can-we-have-both/

How to spot green washing

What does green washing look like in general?

There is a reason why ‘greenwashing’ sounds like a cousin of ‘brainwashing’. Green washing companies know exactly how to put their consumers under an eco-spell. 

Some general greenwashing examples include:

Nature-themed packaging and advertisements

Remember, earthy color schemes and a large price tag don’t automatically turn a product from unethical to ethical.


The Federal Trade Commission has recently set down guidelines on greenwashed marketing copy, but it’s still important to challenge the buzzwords that companies use in their advertising. ‘Natural’ doesn’t mean ‘organic.’ ‘Free-range’ doesn’t mean that ‘animals roam freely.’ ‘Organic’ doesn’t mean ‘sustainable.’ 


Corporations are getting even sneakier when it comes to disguising their unsustainable products. For example, the Orangutan Alliance has listed more than 400 alternative ways that palm oil can be referred to on packaging, including simply ‘Vegetable Oil.’


Sure, a product can claim to be eco-friendly. But does the Rainforest Alliance agree? Or us, at One Tribe? Or any of the certified organizations in the image below?

Eco labels that depict sustainability

What is green washing doing to the high street? 

ARKET is an up-and-coming, modern retailer whose website references the brand’s ‘creativity’ and ‘openness’, along with its focus on being ‘plant-based and making ‘conscious choices.’ Other Stories is a similar retailer, started by a small bunch of creatives.

But what both websites fail to address is that they are owned by H&M. So whilst customers may believe they are buying into independent, sustainable brands, they are actually funding the fast-fashion giants who can be argued to be among the top polluting companies within the industry.

Consumers are becoming aware of the unethical online fast-fashion retailers

Free People is another example of an ethical-sounding brand. Its website claims that when it opened in Philadelphia, Free People nurtured young people looking for freedom in the clothes they wore. What many people fail to realize is that Free People is actually owned by Urban Outfitters, another fashion giant.

This is a larger-scale form of green washing. Consumers are becoming aware of the unethical online fast-fashion retailers, so opt for these independent-sounding shops, which sport an honest and conscientious aesthetic. But if they’re owned by a top polluting company, their garments are being produced in the same factories, and consumers are still funding unethical businesses. Frustrating, right?

Image from Fashion Network Magazine. Shop & Other Stories branch opening in Paris. White lighting and green inside plants giving the brand a homely and friendly aesthetic. https://ww.fashionnetwork.com/news/-other-stories-opens-major-new-parisian-branch,1009211.html

What is green washing doing to supermarkets?

Green washing happens in all sectors, not just the fashion industry. Sainsbury’s was criticised for promoting eco-friendly packaging for its bed linen – which arrives at the store in a single-use plastic wrapping and is removed by staff for display.

Oatly, a woke brand that offers plant-based milk alternatives, enraged its environmentally-conscious consumers when they discovered that it had investment from Blackstone, a company accused of funding deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Blackstone denied the claims.

Fiji Water is another brand that promotes itself as being natural and environmentally friendly but was sued for false claims about being carbon negative and greenwashing. 

Image of three bottles of Fiji Water for sale on Amazon website.

What has greenwashing got to do with transparency?

A company’s transparency says far more about its environmental impact than its aesthetic. If companies had nothing to hide about their production processes, they would be completely transparent.

Boasting about business values and positive progress is redundant if we can’t also see the areas that need improving: the systemic challenges companies and workers face and the honest costs of policies and promises.

Fortunately, organisations like Fashion Revolution, Know the Chain and Greenpeace are working on industrial transparency. They rank companies on their environmental impact, setting up an atmosphere where companies compete for the top spot in sustainability.

(Special shout out to Kering and Adidas who were ranked as brands leading the way with their clear and accurate reports by the Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index Multiple). 

Kering and adidas - 2 brands definately not greenwashing
One Tribe’s partners are committed to transparency 

Transparency means there is information available so that consumers, investors, lawmakers, journalists, NGOs, trade unions, workers, etc. can scrutinize what companies say they are doing to address human rights and protect the environment.

It means brands and retailers can be held accountable for their policies and practices. It is a tool for change and One Tribe’s partners are committed to this kind of transparency.

A tree counter on their websites allows consumers to see and understand the reality of how climate change is being combatted with every purchase. Partners like Karma Drinks pride themselves in complete transparency throughout their production process. 

Corporations are hoping you’ll view the world in green-tinted glasses, but we can fight back.

Dig a little deeper. Challenge what you are presented about a corporation’s sustainability. Green washing is difficult to navigate as a consumer, but awareness is empowerment for change.

Check out which major brands are making genuine commitments towards a more sustainable fashion world or demand action on climate change demand. 

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