Can advertising be saved from greenwashing? Part 2

In part 2, we will explain why “greenwashing” is a problem and – most importantly – if and how we can solve it.

8 min read
Can advertising be saved from greenwashing? Part 2

Article series

Can advertising be saved from greenwashing?

In part 1 of our article, we explained what “greenwashing” is and how green claims work. We’ll now add to this by explaining why “greenwashing” is a problem and – most importantly – if and how we can solve it.

Why is greenwashing a problem? 

Scholars acknowledge two distinct forms of greenwashing perception errors among consumers: unnoticed greenwashing and wrongly perceived greenwashing. The presence of these errors raises significant ethical concerns as they misguide consumers and hinder their ability to make independent ecological decisions. 

  1. The first type, unnoticed greenwashing, poses deontological questions. It involves instances where consumers fail to recognize greenwashing practices, preventing them from making informed choices that align with their ecological values.

  2. The second type, wrongly perceived greenwashing, is connected to consumers' skepticism towards green claims. Although this skepticism has existed since the 1990s, it has significantly intensified over time. Consequently, consumers now tend to perceive greenwashing in various contexts, even where it may not actually exist. This heightened skepticism hampers their ability to distinguish genuine environmentally beneficial or less harmful products, resulting in missed opportunities to take meaningful action for the environment through their purchasing decisions.

Either way, greenwashing perception errors damages reputations and profits for “truly” committed companies, which do not make a return on their investment in environmentally-friendly action. As such, from a capitalistic perspective, greenwashing creates a distorted playing field, entangling “virtuous” companies in a prisoner's dilemma-like situation. Despite their ongoing communication about environmental commitments, these companies face little motivation to persist with their green endeavors. Ultimately, some argue that by reducing both companies’ general credibility and the efficiencies of green markets, greenwashing jeopardizes the whole idea that a greener capitalism can solve the climate crisis.

We present an alternative viewpoint in a recently published article. We question the excessive focus on greenwashing and highlight its potential drawbacks in obscuring the underlying politics of green claims (greenwashed or not). We propose that overlooking such politics contributes to what we term the “great green illusion.”

Our argument centers on the idea that green claims serve as a crucial tool for individuals to assess ecological practices. Consequently, they play a significant role in shaping the public's perception of the environmental landscape, extending beyond mere consumer behavior. The widespread use of green claims creates a false impression that specific environmental issues are being effectively addressed, thus diminishing concerns, and diluting the perceived urgency for climate action. This perception shift can lead to a misguided belief that stringent legal regulations are unnecessary, as companies are seemingly taking responsibility for environmental challenges. In effect, green claims function as a form of soft law, diverting the responsibility of lawmaking away from democratic institutions and towards private entities. This approach relies on voluntary, non-binding commitments rather than robust, enforceable regulations. We conclude that the unanimous and uncritical condemnation of greenwashing can perpetuate the legitimacy of green claims, thereby impeding efforts to challenge the underlying neoliberal agenda embedded within them.

Are there solutions to greenwashing? 

As the debate of greenwashing intensifies, a range of solutions has come to the forefront as potential remedies, including the implementation of regulations, the consideration of bans, the adoption of rigorous self-regulation practices, and a focus on consumer education.

Regulation stands out as an initial solution to address the issue of greenwashing. Alongside general laws that prohibit misleading or deceptive advertising, numerous countries have established comprehensive guidelines for both general and sector-specific best practices when communicating the environmental attributes of products. These guidelines serve as a safeguard against upfront greenwashing tactics by businesses. Some countries have taken more decisive measures by enacting laws specifically aimed at bolstering consumer protection against unreliable or false environmental claims. These laws outline the conditions under which green claims are permitted and the required evidence to substantiate them. Notably, the European Union's “Green Claims Directive”, mentioned earlier, represents the most stringent regulatory framework to date. Under this directive, companies are compelled to provide detailed information on the sustainability of their products.

NGOs, however, raise concerns about the limitations of existing regulations, arguing that they primarily address product or service communication and overlook widespread cases of greenwashing at the corporate/institutional level. NGOs advocate for stronger regulations that encompass a comprehensive ban on the use of green claims for the most environmentally damaging products. This includes categories like internal combustion engine vehicles (particularly SUVs), energy and air transport, as well as food and soft drinks that generate substantial waste (notably in the form of plastic). Taking a more radical stance, some argue that advertising itself perpetuates economic models centered on excessive consumption, which clashes with the boundaries of our planet. They call for a complete prohibition of advertising within these sectors. In a notable example, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and grassroots groups launched the European Citizens’ Initiative #BanFossilAds in 2022. Their initiative urges the European Commission to propose legislation that bans fossil fuel advertisements and sponsorships, along with any promotion of transportation reliant on fossil fuels. Their reasoning is straightforward: Fossil fuel advertisements must be prohibited due to their contribution to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by boosting sales for fossil fuels and fossil fuel products.

Regardless of the content of the regulation, NGOs are urging for a shift in the oversight of advertising content regulations, advocating for independent authorities to be responsible rather than industry-controlled bodies. They emphasize the importance of imposing substantial fines that serve as a strong deterrent for non-compliance. In France, in 2021, 43% of companies opted to pay fines rather than fulfill their obligation to quantify their greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon footprint report. Additionally, there is a growing call for the development of a harmonized cross-border regulatory framework. This would prevent companies engaged in global advertising campaigns from encountering varying enforcement procedures across different countries, and facilitate their compliance with these regulations.

Empowering consumers presents an alternative approach to regulation. Recognizing this, the European Commission advocates for consumer education initiatives that start from a young age, utilizing awareness campaigns to equip individuals with the necessary knowledge to identify and correctly interpret green claims. National online platforms and mobile applications that offer interactive experiences can play a crucial role in disseminating educational materials on sustainable consumption. In the UK, the government has introduced the Green Claims Code for Shoppers, providing guidance to consumers on how to discern genuine environmental claims when considering purchasing products and services.

In addition to education, policymakers should also consider banning self-administered labels that create the illusion of being verified by independent third parties. Furthermore, the provision of easily accessible supplementary information can enhance transparency. For instance, in France, as of 2022, all visual commercial communications (television, cinema, online advertising, including social networks, and print) are required to display the CO2 emissions level and emissions class (ranging from A to G) of the featured car. These legible and visible labels, familiar to consumers, enable automatic processing of information, rendering any attempts at greenwashing ineffective. Such labeling mechanisms contribute to informed decision-making by eliminating ambiguity and promoting genuine environmental accountability.

In the realm of advertising, a key principle holds true: what you can't measure, you can't effectively manage. As a result, it is imperative to encourage advertisers to adopt a systematic approach to measuring the impact of their advertisements, encompassing both their carbon footprint and the potential influence on consumers' behavior. By doing so, advertisers can take proactive steps to mitigate their environmental impact and ensure transparency, guarding against deceptive practices. Ultimately, embracing measurement and accountability becomes crucial to save advertising and its industry. 

Béatrice Parguel
Research Director at CNRS
Guillaume Johnson
Research Scholar at CNRS

Article series

Can advertising be saved from greenwashing?