What Is Greenwashing?

Vague labels are used to greenwash products
Gregor Schuster/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Greenwashing is when a business misleads the public about the environmental soundness of its products or activities. With the sole goal to increase profits, some companies use this unscrupulous strategy in order to exploit people’s desire to make environmentally responsible consumer choices.

A group named TerraChoice, a division of the safety certification company Underwriters Laboratories (UL), periodically examines the trends in deceitful environmental claims.

They having identified seven ways companies commit greenwashing:

Hidden Trade-Off

A small component of a product’s manufacturing process may be green, but other important aspects are ignored and continue to be environmentally damaging.

Lack of Evidence

Manufacturers often offer no evidence to support their claim of environmental soundness. Without confirmation by an independent organization (for example a third party certificate provider), such claims may not be reliably verified.


Very commonly, manufacturers will use imprecise terms designed to fool the costumer into thinking a product is superior to another because of its green attributes. Terra Choice provides examples of labels we have all seen: “Environmentally-Friendly”, Earth-Friendly, and “Environment Safe”.


An irrelevant claim declares the absence of a harmful product which is not likely to be used anyway in the manufacturing of the product, or is even already banned.

Lesser of Two Evils

A large sport utility vehicle may boast the lowest greenhouse gas emissions when compared to other large SUVs, but it still is a highly polluting vehicle with no redeeming environmental qualities.


This category includes outright lies about a product. For example, when the car manufacturer Volkswagen claimed that their small diesel motors produced low NOx emissions.

False Labels

Some independent organizations license the use of a label to communicate to costumers that the product bearing it has some kind of environmental quality. Some manufacturers deceitfully use similar labels or badges to pretend that the product has received third party certification while in fact it has not.

In their latest evaluation of the greenwashing trends, TerraChoice visited 34 stores in the United States and Canada, and cataloged 5,296 home and family products. Of those, the vast majority committed some form of greenwashing. The most common issues encountered belonged in the hidden trade-off, lack of evidence, and vagueness categories. Industries with a longer tradition of improving the environmental footprint of their products were also those least likely to employ greenwashing strategies. These industries include construction and wood products, office supplies, and cleaning products.

Recent trends observed include the multiplication of false labels made to appear as providing some sort of third-party certification assuring environmental quality. Vague claims are superimposed on an official-looking seal, sometimes imitating legitimate certification programs like Green Seal, USDA Organic, the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar, or the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

Remarkably, the type of business where green claims were the most likely to be legitimate were big box stores, when compared to specialty retailers and even green boutique stores. As an alternative to greenwashing, it is possible for businesses to take steps toward environmental sustainability which will at the same time help with profitability.


TerraChoice. The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition.