18 Mar 2022

Avoiding Greenwash: The Dos and Don’ts of Environmental Claims

Posted in: Communicating sustainability

Avoiding Greenwash: The Dos and Don’ts of Environmental Claims

As the world slowly but surely transitions to focusing on the environmental implications of our consumption habits, it can be tempting for businesses to inflate their sustainability credentials. This isn’t always done with nefarious intent but can just as easily be thanks to a dash of over-enthusiasm or undue haste. As cheesemakers say: good things take time. And it takes time to earn environmental credibility, or just one misstep to destroy it..


While the term ‘greenwashing’ may have been first coined nearly 40 years ago, it has only entered common parlance more recently as consumers began to increasingly factor in what impact a product or service has on the planet before parting with their cash. Governments globally have begun responding to this change in purchasing behaviour by cracking down on misleading marketing claims, while consumers themselves are also far savvier today in their understanding of carbon accreditation programmes.

So, what exactly is ‘greenwashing’ in today’s world?

In essence, it is any claim that paints a business as being more sustainable or climate-friendly than it really is. This can be something as simple as saying packaging is biodegradable while failing to mention it might take 50 years to break down in a landfill, or that you emit less carbon than your competitors without knowing how much, or if it is even true.

Here in New Zealand, the Commerce Commission has already been actively tackling environmental claims made by taxi companies (fuel efficiency) heat pump providers (energy efficiency) and cleaning product manufacturers who advertised that they didn’t use particular chemicals that are not typically present in those particular products anyway. It should be obvious, but consumers really don’t like being duped and the backlash can be quick and brutal.

So how do you avoid triggering accusations of greenwashing, you ask? The trick is to keep it real:

  1. Use clear and precise language. Avoid fluffy terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ and say exactly what it is you mean. For example, if you use recycled materials say how much (i.e. 30%).
  2. Walk the talk. If you present yourself as sustainable or climate-conscious, then make sure you and your suppliers measure up. You will leave yourself wide open selling ‘zero-carbon’ products that include parts produced in Asian factories that pollute their local rivers.
  3. Claim only what you can easily prove. Whatever claim you want to make, have the data that backs it up readily available – ideally on your website. Review it regularly to make sure it remains accurate.
  4. Be wary of competitor comparisons. If going down this path, any comparison must be apples to apples and needs to hold true every day the claim stays live.
  5. Choose your brand imagery wisely. Don’t use the colour green or include images of nature in your branding or advertising unless you’re confident you can measure up on tip #2.

For more detailed information on environmental claims check out the Commerce Commission’s handy guidance here and the Advertising Standards Code here.

Does carbon zero and net-zero mean the same to you? Have you found yourself confused by ‘Carbon Jargon’?

If it does, have a look at the recap of our Carbon Jargon: Demystifying climate action terminology webinar.