Greenwashing is a marketing practice that involves making misleading claims regarding the sustainability of a company’s practices in order to create a more environmentally responsible image.
The term first appeared in the mid-1980s in an essay written by Jay Westerveld, at the time a university student, and it is created by combining the words “green” and “whitewash”, that is the attempt to cover up an illegal or reprimandable action.

One of the most infamous (and effective) and examples of greenwashing dates back exactly to that period, when the oil giant Chevron ran the multi-million dollar ad campaign “People Do” which shows several examples of company’s employees engaged in the preservation of threatened species, such as the EL Segundo Butterfly or the grizzly bear. The campaign is an example of a common greenwashing practice, in which a company puts exaggerated emphasis on small environmentally-friendly actions it undertakes in order to divert attention from its more relevant unsustainable activities (it is enough to realise it when one is told that Chevron spent significantly more on the ad campaign that on the programs themselves).
As identified by the advertising consultancy TerraChoice, such practices can be classified in “7 Sins of Greenwashing”, which include the “Sin of Vagueness”, that is making broad and general statements which can be easily be misinterpreted by consumers, and the “Sin of fibbing”, which consists of making outright false claims. A recent example of fibbing is the Volkswagen scandal, which exploded when evidence was uncovered that the car manufacturer had rigged emission tests on its diesel engines while, at the same time, building a reputation on their sustainability.
Only last month, the apparel company H&M has been accused of greenwashing for the sustainability claims it makes with reference to its Conscious Collections and, in particular, for its most recent clothing collection made from Circulose, a fabric made up of clothing waste. In particular, critics claim that these initiatives are only a cover for a fundamentally unsustainable business model, which produces an enormous amount of waste with its focus on cheap and rapidly changing fashion trends.
As sustainability claims become more and more relevant in determining a company’s sales, as demonstrated by a recent report by Nielsen, it is crucial that consumers and relevant authorities are aware and able to effectively spot greenwashing practices, in order to prevent companies from unfairly taking advantage of environmental concerns for the benefit of their own bottom-line and to reward the efforts of those organizations which truly take sustainability at heart.