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What is greenwashing? Here are 7 ways to spot fake sustainability

Greenwashing is not just bad for the environment, it’s bad for our trust. Learn how to detect when brands are trying to fool you into thinking they’re sustainable.

Sustainable brands have grown in influence lately, thanks to demand from younger consumers. Sixty-two percent of Generation Z shoppers prefer to buy from sustainable brands. But companies sometimes try to attract ethical customers without truthful claims. It’s so common there’s a word for it.   

What is Greenwashing?

Image of a girl holding fake flowers looking through a chain link fence

Greenwashing is when companies make false or misleading marketing or PR claims about the environmental impact of their products, business practices or other initiatives. 

But without proof, such claims are actually illegal according to consumer protection laws. The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides provides a set of guidelines about environmental impact claims to help brands avoid mischaracterizing their environmental impact. 

It is also damaging to brands’ reputations when greenwashing gets exposed, and it defeats the purpose of customers who rely on a brand’s messaging because they sincerely want to shop sustainably. 

Yet, greenwashing remains prevalent and it can be very difficult to sort out the fiction from the facts. Here are some common ways brands try to appear more green than they really are. 

Examples of greenwashing

A woman sitting in a forest surrounded by leaves

Here are a few ways brands paint their products or services in a positive light without making a real environmental impact. 

Distracting activities

If a business mainly earns its income from environmentally polluting activities, any additional action it takes to offset its carbon emissions, donate to environmental organizations, or develop secondary clean fuels or energies does make up for the harm done by the primary activity. 

For example, Amazon’s $10 billion Earth Fund awards $1 billion per year to organizations minimizing the impact of climate change. However, this is only a tiny fraction of Bezos’ net worth: $191 billion, and Amazon’s own carbon dioxide emissions grew 15% in 2019. 

Vague language

Words “clean,” “pure,” “natural,” and “sustainable” are all hard to prove or quantify. Compare these to a phrase like “USDA certified organic,” which has a very specific definition. Look for exact claims with third-party verifications. 

Aspirational commitments

Many companies these days are making net-zero commitments for the future, but these are often 30 years away. Such a large time span gives no indication that a company really intends to make necessary changes in its short-term planning. Look for the actions that brands are taking today. 

Slippery slope claims

Companies can get carried away with the significance of their impacts. Watch out for a company using broader global claims to sell its own specific product.  

A man sitting on a romanticized mountain top

Images of pristine nature

Companies producing agricultural products like butter often depict happy cows in green pastures on their labels, when the reality of factory farming looks much different. 

Lack of proof

Sometimes brands knowingly make false marketing claims in hopes that no one will catch them. The way to uncover the lies is by seeking proof for these claims. If something sounds too general, or too good to be true, try to investigate or reach out to the brand with your questions. 

Best-in-class 

Some fast fashion brands highlight their eco-friendly lines, whereas other fast fashion brands are doing nothing. 

But when you consider the scale of smaller eco-friendly collections compared to a brand's overall production, the impact is usually quite small and the fast fashion industry still needs to be transformed. 

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