The term 'greenwashing' refers to the practice of making misleading, exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of a brand or product to project a favourable image. Greenwashing is where a firm spends time and money advertising and marketing that their goods or services are environmentally friendly when, in fact, they are not. The term is also related to the concept of 'whitewashing' where the main intention is to hide deception and malpractice and present a clean image to consumers.  

The rate of greenwashing has increased in the new millennium as the demand for sustainable products and practises increases. In recent years, consumers have shown extreme concern for the environment, especially due to the general awareness and understanding of sustainability issues. They demand more transparency and expect organizations to engage in responsible business practices. This has given rise to greenwashing, as organizations want to appeal to consumers, but at the same time remain competitive. Considering the potential benefits of having an environmentally conscious image, sustainability communication that is not accompanied by actual practices is becoming increasingly common. 

There are two trends to highlight when conceptualizing greenwashing. The broad trend includes all sustainability issues, environmental, social and economic, under the concept of greenwashing. The more specific trend applies the greenwashing concept only to environmental issues and the bluewashing concept to social issues.  

The intentionality of the action is important for the definition, and several authors speak of greenwashing only when there is a clear intention to mislead. Another point that is sometimes emphasized is the existence of a claim. Without this, greenwashing is at least questionable. To complete the scenario, greenwashing may be considered as the result of stakeholders' perceptions of divergences between sustainable behaviour and sustainable communication. Due to the subjective nature of perceptions, identifying real greenwashing is a challenge for stakeholders. 

TerraChoice (2010) developed “the Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which are defined as follows: 

  1. The “Sin of the Hidden Trade-off” is committed by making environmental claims based on a very “narrow set of attributes” while disregarding other relevant aspects, cleverly diverting attention from the harmful aspects of processes that were used in producing it. 
  2. The “Sin of No Proof” is committed when brands provide no reliable evidence for their environmental claims, unable to justify their green claims by providing documents in support of their green products or services.  
  3. The “Sin of Vagueness” is committed when brands use “poorly defined or broad” terminology to imply environmental compatibility, e.g., unregulated buzzwords. Vagueness in communication is an “implicit form of deception” as consumers wrongly interpret the meaning and draw positive inferences about the product attribute. Outright false claims are easier to identify than vague claims. There have been cases where companies have used overly broad terminology such as "clean energy", "clean coal" or "natural", which create a false perception of being green. 
  4. The "Sin of Irrelevance" is committed when brands make claims that are not relevant to consumers seeking to make green purchasing decisions. For example, some companies claim to be green by not using a certain harmful substance in their products, however, in reality, the substance would have already been banned by the government.  
  5. The “Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils” is committed by making environmental claims about a product that may be true in comparison to a competing product but disregard the negative environmental impact of the product category as a whole. This sin is also committed when organizations attempt to distract consumers from the negative attributes of a product or product category by using prefixes such as organic, eco-friendly or green, or if something is labelled as "greener" or "more eco" but does not state what it compares to, as for organic cigarettes and green pesticides.  
  6. The “Sin of Fibbing” is committed whenever claims of environmental benefits are factually untrue or misleading. 
  7. The “Sin of Worshipping False Labels” is committed when brands use “fake labels”, e.g., to imply third-party certification. A company that ‘paints a picture’ of eco-friendliness with an enticing label that, at first glance, appears to have third party endorsement by a bonified environmental company when in fact no such certification exists.  


According to the report "Screening of websites for 'greenwashing'" published by the European Commission (January 2021) on consumer habits on company websites, 42% make exaggerated, false or misleading claims when using concepts such as 'eco', 'conscious' or 'friendly'. This digital sweep has analysed the claims companies make to attract customers using eco-consciousness or sustainability as sales pitches. The report's findings indicate that these cases could be considered illegal practices under the EU's unfair commercial practices directive. 

The practice of greenwashing is detrimental to the consumer and impacts the environment. Not only does it not produce the advertised benefit, but it also generates a greater impact by increasing consumption. 

It is also harmful to companies, as it leads to unfair competition, which is incompatible with corporate social responsibility. 

Consumer recognition of greenwashing has a negative impact on their green purchasing intentions. Greenwashing erodes consumers' ecological confidence and confuses them.  

On the other hand, sustainable finance is soaring in popularity across global markets to financially support the green transition as the world aims to address these compelling climate change and clean energy issues. Sustainable finance encompasses new debt securities, such as green loans granted by multilateral and commercial banks or green bonds (GBs) issued by public sector entities and private firms, as well as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investments. Despite the advantages, GB issuing may also be characterized by the negative practice of greenwashing: by deceptively announcing but not effectively implementing the sustainable projects to be financed through the placement of GB. The empirical evidence on this greenwashing is still scarce, but its diffusion should not be underestimated considering the increasing issues of GBs in the private sector, where such deceptive strategies are less subject to investors' control mechanisms. 

How to avoid greenwashing: if consumer demand for sustainability is the frontier of our transition to a greener, fairer, and smarter global economy, here are  6 basic brand greenwashing tactics to avoid. 

  • Fluffy language: Don’t throw around words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., “eco-friendly” or “natural”). 
  • Green products vs. dirty company: Watch out for hypocrisies, such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers. 
  • Evocative pictures: Don’t use branding images that give an unjustified green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes). 
  • Designations that are just not credible: Look out for obvious attempts to “green” a dangerous product to make it seem safe. (Eco-friendly cigarettes, anyone?) 
  • Imaginary friends: Don’t use a label that looks like a third-party endorsement but is actually made up. 
  • Outright lies: Never use totally fabricated claims or data. 

The main concern of papers dealing with greenwashing in agriculture is the need for sustainability, while research on greenwashing in the food and fashion industry is especially linked to consumer perceptions, mainly through packaging and labels, considering both the information they reveal about the product and the impressions they cause in the customers. Finally, the few studies that analyze greenwashing in food retailing are mainly concerned with company disclosures.   

– Keurig. 2022, Who called it out: The Competition Bureau, Type of greenwashing: misleading recycling claims. Keurig led Canadian buyers to believe they could recycle their single-use plastic coffee pods by simply breaking open the top, emptying out the coffee, and throwing the empty carcass into recycling bins. The capsules weren’t accepted in most Canadian provinces, except for Quebec and British Columbia. And even then the instructions didn’t go far enough. The City of Toronto had to revert 90 tonnes of plastic pods from recycling bins last year because of this kind of capsule carnage. Keurig were fined $3million and ordered to change the misleading recycling claims on the packaging. 

– Adidas was found guilty by the French Advertising Ethics Jury over a claim that a version of the Stan Smith sneaker was made from at least “50% recycled materials”. The claim was found to be misleading because in actual fact, only the upper part of the shoe was made from 50% recycled material, rather than the complete foot. The complainant also said that the product’s “End plastic waste” logo is dodgy as it is unlikely that wearing a pair of Stan Smith sneakers made from material that isn’t fully recycled will bring an end to plastic pollution. 

– A bus ad for Alpro’s Almond drink was reported to the Advertising Standards agency in late 2020 on the grounds that its “GOOD FOR THE PLANET” claim was misleading and could not be substantiated. In spite of Alpro’s defence, the complaint was upheld in September 2021 for breaching the ASA’s rules. 

a) Academic/peer reviewed 

Aji, H. M., & Sutikno, B. (2015). The extended consequences of greenwashing: Perceived consumer skepticism. International Journal of Business and Information, 10(4), 433–468. 

Francesco Baldi, Alessandro Pandimiglio. (2022) The role of ESG scoring and greenwashing risk in explaining the yields of green bonds: A conceptual framework and an econometric analysis, Global Finance Journal, Volume 52, 2022. 

Montero-Navarro, A., González-Torres, T., Rodríguez-Sánchez, J.-L. and Gallego-Losada, R. (2021), "A bibliometric analysis of greenwashing research: a closer look at agriculture, food industry and food retail", British Food Journal, Vol. 123 No. 13, pp. 547-560. 

Munir, S., Mohan, V. Consumer perceptions of greenwashing: lessons learned from the fashion sector in the UAE. Asian J Bus Ethics (2022). 

Ruiz-Blanco, S., Romero, S. & Fernandez-Feijoo, B. (2022). Green, blue or black, but washing–What company characteristics determine greenwashing? Environ Dev Sustain 24, 4024–4045 

Schmuck, D., Matthes, J., & Naderer, B. (2018). Misleading consumers with green advertising? An affect -reason-involvement account of greenwashing effects in environmental advertising. Journal of Advertising, 47(2), 127–145. 

Segran, E. (2019). H&M, Zara, and other fashion brands are tricking shoppers with vague sustainability claims. Retrieved October 12, 2019, from 

Zhang, K.; Pan, Z.; Janardhanan, M. Relationship between the Degree of Internationalization and Greenwashing of Environmental Responsibilities in China-Based on the Legitimacy Perspective. Sustainability 2022, 14, 2794. 

b) Other sources 

TerraChoice. The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition: A Report on Environmental Claims Made in the North American Consumer Market; Underwriters Laboratories: Ottawa, ON, Canada, 2010. 

Screening of websites for 'greenwashing': half of green claims lack evidence 

H&M. More info in Synthetics Anonymous, Changing Markets Foundation.