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Two Steps Forward

Is 'greenwash' the new 'fake news'?

At some point, if everything companies do or claim is dubbed greenwash, it becomes more reflective of the accusers than the accused.



Greenwashing is back with a vengeance.

At least, that’s my take from the firehose of news feeds that cross my inbox each day. And while the term is hardly new — it was coined 35 years ago by a New York environmentalist in an essay about the hotel industry’s efforts to promote towel reuse as a means of green virtue signaling — it seems to have entered a new phase.

"Greenwash" may well be the new "fake news."

What do I mean by that? Just as fake news became a reflexive shorthand for some people (and one person in particular) to dismiss any media coverage that did not comport with their (sometimes warped) worldview, "greenwash" similarly has become shorthand for any corporate activity, big or small, that is perceived by critics to be insufficient, or that doesn't comport with someone's worldview.

At some point, if everything companies do or claim is dubbed greenwash, it becomes more reflective of the accusers than the accused.

Just as there are inaccurate, dishonest or misleading media stories worthy of the "fake news" moniker, there are corporate sustainability claims that aren’t as significant or impactful as they’re made out to be. There’s no shortage of vague and misleading green marketing claims and a few that are outright misleading. Those companies are worthy of being named and shamed.

But most green claims these days aren’t patently false or misleading. Far from it. Much of what’s criticized as greenwash seems to boil down to a difference of opinion about how far and how fast companies should be changing, as I’ve maintained for years — and years. And whether a big company with legacy problems ever can be viewed as a good actor.

Thus, anything that’s seen as too little or too late — or that sounds too good to be true — must be, ipso facto, greenwash. Consider two recent stories:

  • As part of its "plant positive" initiative, Starbucks offered its Rewards members this month the chance to win a year’s supply of free non-dairy drinks. But animal rights group PETA charged the coffee chain with greenwashing because it refused to drop the surcharge for its non-dairy alternatives "despite acknowledging that cow’s milk is the company’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions."
  • The European fashion chain H&M received a greenwash accusation for its reward program that gives points when customers recycle their old garments because, as one critic put it, it "promotes overconsumption" and is "not about stopping people from shopping."

I’m not going to litigate either of these. I can see both sides, and each has a valid point. But both criticisms seem a needless distraction for companies trying new ways to engage environmentally and health-minded consumers and to jumpstart new value chains and business models. Are some of these efforts ham-handed? Probably. But I posit that they’re more sloppy than sinister, the result of well-intentioned companies doing imperfect things.

Probably like the overwhelming majority of companies out there.

Nonetheless, journalists, activists and self-styled critics are quick to pounce whenever a large company makes an effort. If it’s an ambitious or audacious effort, those critics are quick to point out all of the other things the company in question isn’t yet doing right. That conveniently sweeps all of that company’s sustainability initiatives into the same bucket: greenwash.


But all that is old business.

What’s new — and newsworthy — are the regulatory efforts to rein in so-called greenwashers in the financial sector. Over the past few months, the European Union and the U.S. government each have taken aim at banks and investment firms touting some sustainable investment vehicles — mutual funds, sustainability-linked loans, ETFs and the like. Media coverage of these efforts more often than not refers to them as anti-greenwashing initiatives.

For example:

  • Last month, the EU announced a suite of rules requiring fund managers, asset managers, insurers and others that provide financial products or services in the 27-nation bloc to begin disclosing the ESG features of those products. (The Reuters headline: "EU prepares to turn the screw on asset managers over greenwashing")
  • In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission this month warned that it planned to ferret out "unsubstantiated and potentially misleading" marketing claims by funds that track ESG metrics. (The Intelligize/Lexis-Nexis headline: "SEC checks greenwashing at ESG funds")

Another arena where "greenwashing" is showing up is carbon accounting, a murky and nerdy set of rules gaining critical importance in a world where companies, governments and others are committing to net-zero emissions, and where products are beginning to be labeled with their carbon content. Regulators and nongovernmental organizations are being called in to establish norms for how to do these things.

In the meantime, well-intentioned companies showing the way may face a big challenge: Can they successfully traverse the terrain without being labeled with the G-word? It won't be easy.

Scrutiny of sustainability claims is important and necessary. Marketers that make false or misleading representations need to be policed and held accountable. As sustainability-linked financial products and services and carbon labeling become key parts of the corporate sustainability toolkit, we'll need to clamp down on those stretching the truth.

Whether all of these things rise to the level of "greenwash" is another matter. Yes, marketers jumping on a green bandwagon can be prone to make exuberantly vague and unverifiable claims — that’s been going on for decades — and they deserve closer scrutiny. But are they fraudulent? Not so much.

The problem I have with critics’ knee-jerk charges of corporate greenwash is that they lump together the worst actors with the companies that are simply trying to find their way through the green marketing thicket. Should purveyors of personal care products or grocery items making overzealous claims be tarred with the same brush as investment firms that place countless millions of other people’s money into insufficiently defined green investments?

And in a world where a climate crisis looms larger every day, and where biodiversity and social-equity crises are on the near horizon, should we really be lambasting companies’ small-bore marketing claims as if the world hinged on their accuracy?

At some point, if everything companies do or claim is dubbed greenwash, it becomes more reflective of the accusers than the accused.

It becomes, in a phrase, fake news.

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