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Camille Sippel

10th December 2023


What is greenwashing and what can be done to stop it?

Imagine buying a product you believe is doing good for the planet, only to discover it's part of the problem. That betrayal is the essence of greenwashing, a growing trend that's undermining the fight against environmental protection.

What is greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 after he saw a sign in a hotel asking guests to re-use their towels to "save the environment”. He noted the hotel made no real effort to protect the environment and the real purpose of the sign was to reduce the amount of money the hotel spent on laundry. He created the term to describe the devious tactics companies use to appear more environmentally responsible than they are.

During the same decade, Chevron poured millions of dollars into adverts showcasing its protection of cute animals to convince the public of its environmental responsibility, while at the same time violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

Greenwashing isn’t going away—in fact, it’s becoming more and more common. But it’s important to know what it is and why it’s so damaging.

What are the impacts of greenwashing?

Greenwashing tactics are routinely used by companies to downplay their carbon emissions, exaggerate their clean energy investments, promote unproven solutions, and shift responsibility for the climate crisis to individuals.

Some companies spend more time and money on making themselves look environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing their environmental impact. This results in businesses continuing with their existing business models, which prioritize short-term profits and delay climate action.

Not only does this mislead consumers about the sustainability of products and services, but it also unfairly hurts competitors who make a genuine effort to be sustainable.

Why do we need to stop greenwashing?

At a time when the world is facing serious environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, greenwashing can obstruct real efforts to address these challenges. It can also lead to lax environmental regulations if policymakers mistakenly believe that voluntary initiatives by companies are sufficient.

By exposing and challenging greenwashing in court, we can send a powerful message to companies engaging in deceptive marketing: Your customers, and the public, are owed the truth.

Join the fight against greenwashing


How are ClientEarth lawyers working to stop greenwashing?

Climate litigation can help stop companies from misleading consumers and investors into thinking companies are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

For far too long, companies have been able to greenwash their products and services to the public without risk. By bringing suits that force these companies to substantiate their sustainability claims, we hold them accountable over disingenuous claims.

Globally, ClientEarth has a history of taking on major corporations over greenwashing.

  1. We filed a world-first legal complaint against an advertising campaign by oil giant BP which focused on the company’s clean energy investments — despite the company spending 96% of its annual expenditure on oil and gas. The company decided to withdraw its campaign within two months of our complaint.
  2. We’re taking multinational energy and petroleum company TotalEnergies to court over its claims about becoming carbon neutral by 2050, despite continuing to promote and sell more fossil fuels.
  3. We helped launch a first-of-its-kind-lawsuit over major airline KLM’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ advertising campaign. We argued the ads create a false impression that its flights do not contribute to the climate crisis. In response to the legal action, KLM pulled the adverts.
  4. We worked with environmental investigators to publish the  Greenwashing Files, which documents the misleading practices of some of the world's largest polluters.
  5. We submitted recommendations to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over how to ensure companies market their environmental credentials accurately. Our supporters played an important role too, by submitting hundreds of comments asking the FTC for stronger regulations against greenwashing. These will help inform the latest version of the Green Guides, which help marketers avoid FTC actions by ensuring that their environmental advertising is not deceptive.

Camille Sippel is a staff attorney in the US focusing on climate finance issues, specifically using corporate, finance, and consumer law to move corporations and investment decisions toward alignment with climate goals.

We’re doing our part to keep corporations accountable using the power of the law. Will you stand with us to continue the fight for future generations?