Greenwashing 101: Bad for You, Bad for Business


Greenwashing. You have likely heard the term. Especially in a world where sustainability is becoming more and more of a prevalent concept. But what does greenwashing look like in our modern era? Is it changing? How do businesses fall into this trap? How do you avoid it as a consumer? and… is it all bad?

What is Greenwashing?

First off, let’s do a quick dive into what greenwashing is. Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing strategy used by businesses to make their products or practices appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. It’s like putting a fresh coat of green paint on a rusty old machine and hoping nobody notices the underlying flaws. But, even though it may feel like companies are purely doing this to be deceptive, I can truly say that they aren’t always meaning to.

Now I am not giving businesses a pass on greenwashing by any means. We should definitely hold them accountable for upholding claims that their products are better for the environment. But, I will say that in our modern times, information comes fast and business is competitive. So honest mistakes do happen.

As an environmental consultant, I usually observe companies fall into a greenwashing trap in 5 main ways:

  1. They blatantly are misleading and are only concerned about sales. This is probably the one you think of most but is actually not as common as you may think.
  2. They don’t consider the environment to be important enough to think about it at the start of planning. When this happens, often the work is too far along to save when they realize the environment might be a key point of the project but, they have made too many decisions to make a sufficient change.
  3. They genuinely had good intentions, but didn’t hire any environmental professionals and tried to do the work internally. This often results in lofty claims and unsubstantiated science, typically from an uninformed marketing team.
  4. They had good intentions and were tricked. This usually occurs with bogus offsets or poor certifications from third-party companies who sell positive environmental change but are doing some greenwashing themselves.
  5. The consumers have completely unrealistic expectations and they will never be satisfied, and as such, the project or product ends up looking bad, when it is actually good. As a consumer, it is important for us to know that almost all products or projects do harm to the environment in some way, but we are just looking to do the least harm for the service we need.

The Classic Tactics of Greenwashing

Now let’s delve into how greenwashing usually occurs, so you can spot it and keep yourself from getting duped out of your hard-earned cash:

  1. Buzz Words. Companies frequently use words like “eco”, “environmentally friendly”, and “Tested Green”, but none of these have any real requirements for companies to be able to use them. So what do you do about that? Look for certifications. These should have tests and standards that companies have to meet in order to place them on their products.
  2. Fake Certs. Yeah, I know, I just said to look for certifications. But companies sometimes make up certifications or the certifiers they have chosen are liars and the company didn’t know. Great! That’s confusing. You might be thinking what do I do about that? Honestly, just do your best. Remember, it’s their duty to vet their certifications appropriately… not yours!
  3. Green Imaging. Just because someone sticks a green label on something doesn’t mean it is sustainable.
  4. Trade-offs. Companies may advertise one thing they are doing well or something they don’t impact naturally because of how the product is produced. That doesn’t mean they are better than their competitors, which is the thing we are concerned about. Remember, sustainability doesn’t only include the environment, and the environment doesn’t only include climate change and trees.
  5. Soft Truths. Maybe they are doing good but they are over-emphasizing how good. Numbers are supposed to be truth… but trust me, they can be made to sound better than they are. Which sounds better? “A majority of our product is made from recycled materials!” or, “51% of our product is made from recycled materials.” Same thing… both true!

Why Greenwashing is Bad… or Good?

Now, don’t take this as clickbait. I actually do think greenwashing has some really redeeming qualities…. however, I also think it has some really horrible qualities. So which do you want first? The good or the bad?… Hopefully, you said bad because this is a blog so you’ll get it in whatever order I wrote it.

The Bad: Imagine this. You are trying to be a good citizen of the world. Armed with a reusable shopping bag you set out on a mission to go pick up some dish soap. You saunter down the aisle of your local store to find an overwhelming amount of choices. A big blue bottle, a box of individually wrapped tabs… a big green bottle called “Pure Bliss” with the cutest picture of a little fluffy ducky. The label proudly proclaims it to be “100% Natural” and “Gentle on the Environment.” Easy choice, you pick up the bottle of “Pure Bliss” laundry detergent, after all, it’s barely more than the others and sustainability is something you are willing to chip a little extra for. You skip home feeling good about yourself just in time to meet a friend for lunch. But, when they see your green bottle they scoff. “You got duped into that?!”

They proceed to enlighten you about the concept of greenwashing and how concentrated soap tabs are almost always the best option because of their reduced lifecycle impacts. Your heart sinks as you realize that the “Pure Bliss” detergent you believed to be a responsible choice may be nothing more than carefully crafted deception geared to trick well-intentioned consumers like yourself. How malicious! Not only did you pay more for something that wasn’t real, but now you question every company including ones that are truly doing something good for our world.

The Good: Wow! How do you come back from that Bad…? Well, I have worked in the environmental industry as a scientist and consultant for over a decade, and truthfully, in the last three years I have seen an extreme and rapid jump in the number of companies interested in making serious sustainable changes. In 2020, the CEO of Blackrock (a huuuuge investment firm) sent out his annual letter where he discusses anticipated market trends for the future. In it, he warned that there had been a massive shift in investors focusing on sustainable investing (as in a $4 Trillion shift) and that companies were going to have to take sustainability way more seriously to be competitive from a market perspective. I can genuinely say that this warning is showing truth and companies are being forced to care.

Which begs the question? If companies didn’t keep falling into greenwashing traps, and watching shares plummet as investors pulled money, would they really have made a change…? In our modern era, investors are looking for sustainable investments, sometimes because they care about the world, and sometimes because they know there are consequences to pay for if you get caught greenwashing. So maybe, greenwashing actually has a good side.

Three Famous Examples of Greenwashing

So… shall we take a look at some famous cases of greenwashing to examine what bad and good look like in action.


In 2017 two Harvard researchers reviewed 200 of Exxon’s documents and statements surrounding climate change and found that Exxon had intentionally misled the public on the dangers of climate change. This included funding climate denial campaigns, creating misleading advertisements, and lobbying against environmental regulations, all while internally acknowledging the scientific consensus on the dangers of climate change.

For your anger or enjoyment, here is a pretty hard-to-argue-with video of Exxon’s (now fired) Senior Director for Federal Relations, where he gets tricked into divulging some pretty spicey details during a faked job interview.

ExxonMobil is currently involved in lawsuits where local governments are seeking compensation for damages to cities and states from climate-related issues (think storms, fires, and droughts). These suits are still ongoing, but I guess time will tell if this greenwashing has a happy ending…


When you think of Volkswagen you may think of the days when hippies drove around in sweet VW vans and VW bugs yelling “Save the oceans!” But, recently Volkswagen took a big sidestep from their flower-powered days of old.

The New York Times thoroughly covered “Dieselgate” detailing one of the most famous exposures of a greenwashing scandal in history. In 2015, it was revealed that VW had been manipulating emissions tests for their diesel vehicles. The company had installed software known as a “defeat device” in millions of cars, which detected when the vehicle was undergoing emissions testing and altered the performance to meet the required standards. However, during regular driving conditions, the cars would switch to another mode and emit nitrogen oxides (NOx) at levels far exceeding the legal limits. Maybe you are asking why you should care. NOx’s are linked to asthma, bronchitis, and heart attacks while also contributing to global warming. In the end, Volkswagen received fines of over $22 billion. So that’s bad.

Now how do you make that type of greenwashing good? Well, the hard hit to Volkswagen’s reputation meant they had to make some pretty polar swings in the opposite direction. Two years after Dieselgate, Volkswagen showed its commitment to investments in electric vehicles by announcing its retirement from all non-electric racing and building the fastest electric car to date. In fact, they built the fastest car period, and showed the car world that electric vehicles were not just about sustainability, they were about more power baby! They now build one of the two premiere engines for Formula E, the electric version of Formula 1, which is one of the primary reasons electric car technologies are skyrocketing. This begs the question if Dieselgate didn’t occur, would we have seen such a sustainable investment from one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers?

Stay tuned to The iTT Project Blog if you are interested in an in-depth dive into why electric cars are truly one of our best options for a transition toward sustainability.

F*ck Oatly

Oatly (an oat milk company) has found itself in the middle of a boycott by its consumers on numerous occasions. See, Oatly prides itself on sustainability (at least according to its marketing) and that’s pretty fair considering oat milk is likely the most sustainable form of milk… which is probably why it tastes like dirt!

Oatly has faced fire for selling shares to Blackstone (a company linked to deforestation in the rainforests and contributions to the global housing crisis), selling oat waste to pig farms despite vegan claims, distant or problematic sourcing, and lying about ingredients.

In response Oatly created a website called F*ck Oatly and another website for people who really hate Oatly called F*ck F*ck Oatly. On these websites, Oatly summarizes all their negative criticisms and headlines. But, most importantly, they listen to their consumer’s criticisms and either provide their opinion of the matter or discuss whether they need to change. Changes have included investments into entirely new forms of research for oat-based foods from residue, or their opinions that investments from major corporations into sustainable companies are a means of shifting the world towards sustainability.

And truthfully… we love this! Transparency is one of the biggest and greatest steps that a company can take towards sustainability. Transparency holds a company accountable for real change and makes them evaluate what they could be doing better. This again begs the question, if Oatly wasn’t called out for greenwashing, would they pushing these boundaries?

What can you do to fight back?

So what can you do to force these changes? Well, hopefully, it was evident that consumer outrage really does push companies and governments to take action. You may feel small sometimes, but your actions can have big pressure. So what can you do specifically to fight back:

  1. Do your research. This is your best, but most time-intensive line of defense. Also, the responsibility shouldn’t be yours alone. But, here’s my best suggestion for doing good while being considerate of your time. If you constantly consume a product and think it may have a better option, research that product, look for greenwashing, and make the switch. Remember, cumulative impacts make a big difference.
  2. Buy the product anyways. Let’s be real, I don’t research every product I buy. It’s too difficult. And when it comes down to it, here’s my thought process on why. If a product appears to be blatantly misleading (think net-zero gasoline) then I am avoiding it. Maybe even sending a grumpy letter. But, if a product appears to be better than my usual option, the claims appear plausible, and it is the same cost or close to… I’m buying it. Why? Because the best way I can show companies that I want more products like this is to give them what they want… money.
  3. Boycott. If it turns out that product was blatantly misleading and they get put on the front page of your favorite reputable blog (*cough* *cough* The iTT Project *cough*), then don’t hesitate to not buy their products. Those companies’ sole goal is money and they potentially mislead you on purpose. You are allowed to be mad about that. They are impacting your world.
  4. Invest in ESGs or divest from companies you don’t believe in. If you have money you are using to invest and make that sweet sweet passive income, consider divesting when companies utilize heavy greenwashing or do things you disagree with. Or… you can give some positive reinforcement and invest in companies that have good Environmental Social Governance (ESG) scores. This one is a little complex if you have never heard of ESGs, so stay tuned to The iTT Project Blog to learn more about ESGs in the future.
  5. Don’t be ridiculous. A key thing I want you to understand as you read through these posts is that we aren’t trying to make zero impacts on the world, that’s impossible. But we are trying to quickly reduce our impacts. Some companies are legitimately trying to lessen their impacts and I can assure you as someone that has consulted with companies… it is really frickin’ difficult to come up with real scientifically backed solutions that make a difference. This might be an unpopular opinion, but if a company seems like they were legitimately trying, the best thing to do is say “I expect better in the future!… But thanks for trying.”

F*ck ItT!

What’s the point of it all? If we want a change but it’s too complex to understand if our decisions are based on misinformation, why bother? Well, our thoughts are that by trying your best you are showing companies and governments that you want a more sustainable world and they eventually have to answer to that. And hopefully, after reading this you are a little armed to sense their tactics!

But maybe you disagree with us! So, in solidarity with Oatly, we dedicate this comments section as our space to say F*ck iTT! Make this the centralized space where you voice your disagreements with The iTT Project and find other people’s thoughts on why we suck! Enjoy!

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