Greenwashing: what it is and how to unmask it

What Is Greenwashing? How to understand when a brand is cheating? Read the guide and know everything about this phenomenon


what is greenwashing

What is Greenwashing?

Green Washing is a phenomenon that was not born today. This greenwashing definition was coined by the American environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who first used it in 1986 to stigmatize the practice of hotel chains that used the excuse of environmental impact to invite guests to reduce the consumption of towels. The motivation was obviously not greater sustainability, but rather economic savings.

The Neologism was born from the combination of the words "green" (the color associated with the environment and ecology) and "whitewashing" (to whitewash and, figuratively speaking, to conceal or hide something).

The term refers to a company's attempt to paint itself green, claiming to be sustainable when in fact it is not sustainable at all. In this way, the brand creates a positive image of its products and activities, while hiding its harmful practices.

Already in the nineties there were two famous cases of greenwashing: Chevron and DuPont, famous American petrochemical companies, passed themselves off as eco-friendly in order to divert attention from their extremely polluting practices.
These energy companies tried to do green marketing to increase their public image. They tried to appear environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing is therefore a real communication strategy aimed at enhancing one's reputation through the nonchalant use of references to sustainability, the environment and ecology. Communication that is not supported by real facts and results that improve production processes or products.

With greenwashing, the company wants to obtain a positioning focused on environmental sustainability with the consequent benefits in terms of image and turnover, without actually using practices that are substantially different from those of its competitors.

Typically a common way of doing this is through communication campaigns that highlight positive aspects of a business on the environment, diverting the public's attention away from an organization's overall sustainability impact. Fortunately, greenwashing practices, although effective in the short term, can be extremely dangerous in the medium to long term, damaging a company's reputation and credibility. A shallow and superficial communication in the long run can be easily unmasked, or in any case can progressively lose its impact.

avoid greenwashing

Types of Greenwashing

In the short term, it is easier and more cost-effective for companies to invest in communicating sustainability than to actually implement it with drastic and decisive measures.

In their often crass attempts to paint themselves green, companies make easily recognizable mistakes. Mistakes that are the result of superficiality and that the market is able to recognize and identify, such as the omission of relevant information and the inclusion of vague or unprovable statistics. Often, no significant information or data is presented to support what the marketer claims. Or individual features of a product are emphasized, and the true nature of the product is not presented.

With low efforts in the environmental responsability, companies can fake green products, sustainable supply chains and party certifications.

Green Washing as a Corporate Marketing Stunt

Unfortunately, Green Washing has become an extremely common phenomenon, given the growing popularity of eco-sustainability. In fact, there are many companies that exploit the concept of environmental sustainability as a deceptive promotional message to gain more revenue.... Here's a list of six common practices and cases studies of companies deceptively claiming to be eco-friendly and aware of the environmentally conscious:

- Hidden trade-offs: declaring sustainability based on only a few characteristics, shifting the focus away from what has the greatest environmental impact
Lack of evidence: stating characteristics that cannot be easily verified or proven
Vagueness: mentioning benefits or characteristics in an extremely vague and generic way, with risks of misunderstanding
Counterfeiting: selling a product with counterfeit words or certifications by changing the label
Irrelevance: making environmental claims that are totally unnecessary or irrelevant
Falsehood: simply making a false claim In Italy, Greenwashing falls under misleading advertising and is constantly monitored by the Italian Competition Authority.

examples of greenwashing

Examples of Greenwashing

The following is a list of real-world examples of unsubstantiated claims that fall squarely within greenwashing. -

- A plastic bag containing a new shower curtain is labeled as "recyclable." It is not known whether the package or shower curtain is recyclable. The label is misleading if any part of the package or its contents cannot be recycled.

- A carpet is listed as having "50% more recycled content." The manufacturer only increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. While the information is not false, the message conveys the idea that the carpet is definitely sustainable;

- A trash bag is labeled as "recyclable." Trash bags are not separated from other waste in the landfill, so the information is misleading because there is no environmental benefit.

How to defend against Green Washing

The best way to be sure of companies' true sustainability is through environmental certifications. Also, a good way to check the veracity of companies' sustainability is to research the same information within the companies themselves, by consulting their website for example.

Usually when there is no in-depth information it is not a good sign. It's another matter if the brand meticulously explains the entire production process of a product, from the sourcing of materials to the sales stages. Also focus heavily on how companies communicate. When the information provided is vague or too technical, almost incomprehensible, an alarm bell should go off: the brand may be greenwashing.

These are suggestions to avoid greenwashing, but it's always important that you're informed before buying a consumable product. 


Analyze well the companies you decide to buy from, evaluate if they produce according to values you share. Take time to check that their working processes are truly ethical and eco-sustainable.

We at Ad Hoc Atelier check that all brands produce ethically, valuing artisans. We don't claim sustainability if, for example, a brand produces leather bags. We only label as sustainable brands that are 100% sustainable. If you want to discover our collection of sustainable products, click here.

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