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Why greenwashing has become a hot topic and what you can do about it

Jan 9, 2023 5:37:07 PM

With an increasing number of consumers willing to spend more for products they believe to be more sustainable, it can be tempting to focus your marketing and messaging efforts on the most eco-friendly aspects of your products. 

Unfortunately, that is often the first step onto the slippery slope of greenwashing: making unsubstantiated claims that can mislead consumers into believing that a company’s products are more environmentally friendly than they really are. 

What’s Old is New Again

The term “greenwashing” was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry's practice of placing notices in bedrooms promoting the reuse of towels to "save the environment". In his essay, Westerveld noted that often little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was made by these institutions, although towel reuse saved them laundry costs. He concluded that often the real objective was increased profit, and labeled this and other profitable-but-ineffective "environmentally-conscientious" acts as greenwashing.

When you consider the data, the motivations behind greenwashing become very clear. As far back as 1991, studies found that the environmental reputation of a company affected a consumer’s purchase intent. And today, according to GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index, 64% of Gen X consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, with that number jumping to 75% among millennials. 

Couple those statistics with evidence of an improved brand reputation (which equals improved revenues!) and improved employee recruitment and retention – 25-50% less turnover for companies with greater corporate responsibility performance – and you have the perfect recipe for greenwashing. 

The Many Faces of Greenwashing

Greenwashing can take many forms. From false claims of improved environmental friendliness to messaging that can’t be substantiated with actual data to leveraging images or attestations that imply sustainability, greenwashing has no industry or geographical barriers. And consumers are sitting up and taking notice – and sometimes taking legal action as well: 

Starbucks faced claims of greenwashing in 2018 when it introduced a lid with a built-in drinking straw that – despite being recyclable, unlike its predecessor – actually contained more plastic by weight than the old straw and lid together. 

In April 2022, some items advertised by Kohl’s and Walmart as “bamboo” were actually made of rayon. As a result, both retailers were fined for a total of $5.5 million in civil penalties for violating the FTC Act and the Textile Act.

And in November 2022, H&M was on the receiving end of yet another proposed class action lawsuit claiming that clothing in H&M’s “Conscious Choice” collection is deceptively marketed as sustainable given that the items are made primarily from recycled polyester, a disposable plastic considered to be a “one-way street to landfill or incineration.”

While these are high-profile examples, the greenwashing story plays itself out daily, with far-reaching and negative consequences. Greenwashing undermines the legitimate efforts of companies genuinely trying to be environmentally responsible. In some cases, greenwashing can have legal consequences; in the United States, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the authority to take action against companies that make false or misleading environmental claims. 

And of course, there is the hit your brand reputation – and your organization’s bottom line – would take in the event of a greenwashing scandal. 

Becoming a Sustainability Champion

So, how can you champion true sustainability within your organization and avoid the PR and legal ramifications of greenwashing? Like with most things in life, honesty is the best policy.

Be transparent. Provide clear and specific information about the environmental impacts of your products and your company’s operations. This includes disclosing any negative environmental impacts as well as any positive ones. 

Consider using valid third-party attestations and certification programs to verify your environmental claims. 

And make a genuine effort to continuously improve the environmental performance of your products and operations. This can include setting and working towards environmental performance targets.

Partners Matter

We’ve been at this for a while and we know sustainability is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit -- but it’s also one that’s not going away. The key to making a real environmental impact is knowing how and when to prioritize your efforts, but with that comes a balancing act. 

From recycled labels to sustainable stickers on eco-friendly sticker paper, eco-friendly hang tags, e-commerce packaging, and everything in between, you can count on us to help you navigate the complexities surrounding sustainable packaging and labeling. Plus, we step up sustainability by making it smart. Our greener RFID products dramatically reduce the amount of single-use materials and up your tech game. With CHARMING’s RFID labels, you can improve forecasting and keep your eye on your supply chain knowing exactly how much and where your inventory is without contributing to the landfill.

With decades of experience helping some of the biggest retail brands navigate the world of sustainability – responsibly – we can help.

Topics: sustainability
Jeremy Van Houten

Written by Jeremy Van Houten

For nearly 20 years, Jeremy Van Houten has worked with some of the world's leading brands to provide best in class trim and packaging products and comprehensive online systems. He is committed to identifying and delivering innovative trim, packaging, and data solutions that help global retailers advance their strategic initiatives, including sustainability programs. Prior to CHARMING, Jeremy held roles at Avery Dennison and r-pac International.