A Useful Guide to Understanding Greenwashing & How to Avoid It (4/3/2023)

Apr 03, 2023 Annie Cao

Consumers are reducing their carbon footprint, and companies are upping their marketing game with strategies that appeal to eco-conscious customers. But how do you know if a company is truly sustainable or using greenwashing tactics?

We’ll break down what greenwashing is and what to look out for so you can avoid it.


image via Setting Mind

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the process of creating a false impression by presenting misleading information about the company’s products or services. This includes using buzzwords, avoiding specific claims, or fabricating data to look like a sustainable brand. These companies are usually investing time and money to market themselves as an eco-friendly brand, but aren't actually trying to minimize their environmental impact.

The earliest mention of greenwashing was in 1960. Hotels put up signs telling guests to reuse their towels to help the environment. However, it turns out hotels benefitted from lower laundry costs, but didn’t do much else to be sustainable.


image via Medium

What are some examples of greenwashing?

Companies use many strategies to greenwash their products:

  • Making vague claims and using generic words associated with sustainability: Terms like “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “chemical-free” are usually not regulated and don’t have a clear meaning. Moreover, these words are typically accompanied with statements that don’t provide enough information about how the product or service is sustainable.
  • Including “green” imagery: Specific visual branding may make the company look greener than they really are. Pictures of nature or animals are attractive to the consumers’ eyes, but they might only be contributing to a surface-level aesthetic.
  • Making irrelevant statements or focusing on one aspect: The Green Business Bureau mentioned that CFCs have been banned for 30 years. But some products continue to be advertised as CFC-free. While this seems harmless, these claims try to make a company look better than their competitors when they’re not. And if they’re only focusing on this factor, what about their waste production, packaging, or shipping practices? By picking a single initiative, companies are ignoring the bigger problems.
  • Using jargon: Words such as “sustainable,” “biodegradable,” and “compostable” are considered jargon, but greenwashing techniques have diluted their meaning. It’s not bad to use these words if a company is really sustainable, but if a brand is greenwashing, scientific jargon might deceive customers into believing their products are eco-friendly.
  • Saying that they’re “working on becoming sustainable” without any changes: Some brands may claim to be working towards sustainability – however, without a detailed timeline or visible progress, it’s hard to know if they’re telling the truth.


    image via impakter.com

    How do you know if a company is actually sustainable?

    When companies are greenwashing, they usually aren’t telling the whole truth. Companies that do focus on sustainability might look like this:

    • Making clear claims: Thorough breakdowns on products, such as specific percentages and detailed stories about where everything is sourced, are good signs that a company is sustainable.
    • Being recognized by official organizations: Certifications provide a company with transparency. Being Certified B Corp (like us!) or partnering with organizations such as the Green Business Bureau, Fair Trade USA Certification, Green Seal, or more backs up a company’s ethics and proves that they’re committed to helping the environment. These certifications are usually visible on a brand’s website.
    • Having data to back up sustainability claims: Keeping current and updated data on a company’s site shows that they have nothing to hide.
    • Being honest and transparent: Companies that are genuinely trying to be sustainable aren’t afraid to admit their mistakes and are open to hearing feedback to improve their products. They’ll also be vocal about the initiatives they support, their future goals and plans, and their ongoing accomplishments.


    image via The Telegraph

    How can we spot and avoid greenwashing?

    Researching a company is a good way to figure out if they’re sustainable. Try asking yourself these questions when looking up a brand:

    • Do their word choices match their actions?
    • What evidence do they provide about their practices and ethics? Are they being transparent?
    • Are their claims relevant to the industry’s current standards?
    • Do their statements focus on one small aspect of sustainability instead of working towards solving a larger issue?
    • Do they acknowledge their mistakes? Have they shared a plan to improve their brand and are they showing visible changes?


    image via Design Portfolio

    Greenwashing has been around for decades, and most of us have probably fallen for a greenwashing tactic at one point. Although some companies are transparent and honest about their efforts to be sustainable, other brands may be cutting corners and making green statements in order to have a positive appearance.

    At Sabai, we promise to deliver on our sustainability practices. Our made-to-order and modular furniture uses recycled and upcycled materials. We also try our best to take responsibility for our furniture throughout its life cycle by offering our Repair Don’t Replace and Sabai Revive programs, which focus on extending the life cycle of existing items and a circular system. Our community is small but mighty – your support and feedback has continuously helped us improve our products.


    What are your opinions on greenwashing? Let us know in the comments below and share this article if you found it helpful!

    Cover image via Berkeley Haas Case Series

    Comments on this post (1)

    • Shaan

      Apr 05, 2023

      Hi there,

      Great article. For consumers who are trying to do good and live their day to day lives it is hard to know what brands / companies are truly putting their money where their mouth is. Knowing to look out for the 3rd party certifications is helpful. What resources are there for brands to know how to bring sustainability into their ethos? I’m in the film industry, a few resources for filmmakers & studios to know how to run a more sustainable film set & sustainability narratives: The Green Production Guide (Producer’s Guild of America), The Good Energy Playbook & the Environmental Media Association are good places to start.

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