Greenwashing: What’s real and what’s just clever marketing?

Did you know that as companies get more sophisticated in their marketing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what’s real and what’s just clever marketing? 

So, textile Company A, who used to be synonymous with toxic chemicals and poor working conditions, made promises to tackle climate change and reduce emissions from its factories. It began producing T-shirts in Tencel fabrics but printed designs on each T-shirt using the plastisol screen printing process. 

Let’s explore the situation

Tencel is a sustainable fabric regenerated from wood cellulose. Its fibre is renewable and manufactured from eucalyptus trees that are produced entirely without the use of pesticides. Hence this much is real and a step in the right direction.

However, the screen-printing method typically uses plastisol ink. Plastisol has a base called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and is made up of two ingredients, polyvinyl resin and a liquid plasticizer. Creating plastisol releases chemicals that are harmful to the environment. These chemicals are also potentially hazardous to health. 

Merging this with sustainable fabric was clever marketing. 

Hence, while Company A made a greener choice of Tencel fabric, the gesture was counterbalanced by the environmental impact of plastisol. Without the eco-friendly option of screen printing that substitutes plastisol ink with water-based ink or spray adhesive with water-based adhesive, the impact of reducing emissions cannot reach its full potential. 

The case above has a name, it’s called greenwashing.

The origin of Greenwashing

Think of brainwashing – the alteration of the human mind with the intent to radically turn a person from their once held belief – perhaps it would give an inkling into greenwashing. 

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmental activist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s. An article on CBS news revealed that Westerveld came up with the term after he visited a hotel in Samoa where guests were asked to reuse their towels to help save the environment, but offset the gesture by building more hotels without energy-efficient lighting, landscape systems, and water flow systems.

Wikipedia explains further by defining “Greenwashing, also called “green sheen”, as a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organisation’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.”

Question: Who has been greenwashing you?

Answer: Government, corporates, individuals

Question: how?

Greenwashing gimmicks

Since businesses and governments are becoming very creative in their marketing of sustainability and carbon neutrality, it is pertinent that people match their creativity with intelligence of their own. This means that as an individual, you must get familiar with the different ways they greenwash.  


  1. Organise environmental or sustainability-themed events, make the loudest noise about it, and make pledges and promises with no teeth 
  2. Pretend to be influencing change with impacts that cannot be measured
  3. Cover up empty promises by pointing ‘regulatory’ fingers at business owners (because who regulates the regulator?) 
  4. Pledge sustainability-focused grants to small businesses who are inclined to toe the path, but attach extortionate requirements that ultimately disqualifies interested parties


  1. Rebrand by changing logo, brand name, brand colour (like coca cola with the green label), brand slogan/tagline to reflect carbon neutrality etc. 
  2. Make ambiguous claims whose benefits to the environment cannot exactly be pinpointed  
  3. Exaggerate services/production processes to say they use green solutions and conserve natural resources (case in point – Ryanair in 2020 audaciously announced itself to the British public as Europe’s “lowest emissions airline”. The claim was more or less made up and the Advertising Standards Agency promptly banned the ads)
  4. Sell a sustainable product produced in a non-sustainable environment or sell eco-friendly products produced with non-reusable materials. Remember in 2019 when McDonald’s introduced paper straws? They turned out to be non-reusable. 
  5. Approach CSR as a way to burnish their public image while everything else remains the same  
  6. Jump on buzzwords to appear at the top of the curve while in truth they belong at the bottom (case in point – Shell plc in 2020 tweeted the question ‘what are you willing to change to help reduce emissions’ as though they are not responsible for around 1-2% of global CO2 emissions from its activities every year) 


  1. Gets all militant about littering the environment with debris but buys another car that gets outrageous gas mileage 
  2. Complains about long energy consumption but takes the plane on a three-hour trip
  3. Complains about buying more food than can be consumed but prefers table water in plastic bottles when the tap water is drinkable

There can be no real progress in reducing carbon footprints if even as individuals we drive to walkable distances. These little actions may pale in comparison to the carbon-guzzlers like petroleum and natural gas industrial sectors, but there is real value in small change.

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