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It Will All Come Out in the Greenwash

19th May 2023

This is a guest post from Cloudfm’s Head of ESG, Katrina Christopoulos. Listen to more of her expert thoughts on sustainability and greenwashing on the Doing The Opposite podcast. 

I like to think of greenwash as a variety of beautiful green fabrics, but once washed not all of them remain green – that’s how you expose the intruders!   

Fundamentally, greenwash is an attempt to make a product or service look sustainable or ethical, when in fact it isn’t and may even be causing harm.   

Having worked more than 15 years in the sustainability field I have seen a lot of it. Earlier in my career it was rarely called out, but now it seems greenwash examples are being shared by the hour!  

This can be a bit of a problem. Personally, I feel there is a line to be drawn between trying to do the right thing but failing and being outright dishonest. Some companies are genuinely trying to create a beautiful green fabric out of a dye that just doesn’t stick, but some are purposefully pulling the green wool over consumers eyes to deceitfully profiteer.  

But when companies and individuals have good intentions, it is important they aren’t afraid to try and fail because that is of course how we learn and, in the end, get it right. But as the exposure of greenwash increases, so too does the fear of being called out for it. Unfortunately, this is leading to what is termed green hushing, where companies are keeping their sustainability initiatives close to their chest for fear of scrutiny. That may stop them from receiving negative press, but it also means that others lose the chance to learn from their mistakes or gain inspiration from their successes. 

That said, there are many instances where greenwash is just out-and-out poor form and really inhibits us as consumers and businesses to do the right thing, so it needs calling out. And unfortunately this is now so prevalent it even has sub-categories to help define the type of greenwash, here are a few examples of the most common types: 

Green labelling

This is where a product is marketed as sustainable/ethical but using misleading images or terms like natural or biodegradable to give the sense of sustainability when in fact it isn’t.   

Take this story from 2020 when it was uncovered that wood logged illegally from protected forests in the Carpathians had been sold on to companies including IKEA which likely used it in children’s furniture. The provenance of the wood had been rubber stamped by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is supposed to guarantee the timber is ethically sourced. 

So IKEA customers had no idea that the furniture they thought was ethically sourced was in fact a piece of the protected Carpathian forest!   

The FSC is also criticised for its ‘FSC Mix’ label. Consumers see this label on, for example, a pack of tissue paper, and the presence of the FSC logo is easily mistaken as a sign that this paper is sustainably sourced. But if that logo also says ‘mix’ then there can be a lot of non-FSC wood in the product. Personally, I just don’t feel that is made clear enough. It is far from the only example of labelling that requires consumers to read between the lines, which makes it hard for individuals to do the right thing. 


This leads us nicely onto ‘greenshifting’, where companies shift the environmental damage they are causing onto the consumer, effectively blaming them to take the heat off their own responsibilities.  

I am all for focusing on what you can do as an individual to push change, but if a company is providing a service or product it is largely their responsibility to find a more sustainable way to do it.  As consumers we of course need to provide the demand for sustainable items, but the power to change those products is not in the consumer’s hands.  

Let’s take the airline industry as an example. When you book a flight, your airline might ask you to pay a token extra to offset the emissions of your flight.  

Leaving to one side the fact that offsets come with a whole range of greenwash issues that may not even offset the carbon they claim to, the burden of pollution fundamentally should not be passed on to the consumer. We simply shouldn’t ask consumers to pay in order to pollute.  

Even if airline offsets do put money into projects that succeed in sequestering carbon, one thing this programme does not do is reduce the carbon emissions of the flight itself. All they do is put money elsewhere to a project that hopefully sequesters carbon. But unfortunately the odds are it doesn’t.  

The airline industry should be investing in better planes and fuel to actually reduce emissions in its core product. If they do this, then flight costs may well rise. But the consumers taking the flights will naturally end up paying more, thus playing their part in the end. But those consumers should not be to blame for the carbon intensity of a flight. Nor should they be guilted into paying to offset their carbon – this should be built into the cost in the first place. 


This happens when a company will showcase a particularly green product while still producing a host of other damaging products or services which it fails to highlight.   

A good example would be big banks. If you look on their websites they will be trumpeting their net-zero plans and how they are investing in renewables, yet many are still financing fossil fuel projects on the quiet.   

The oil companies themselves are also very verbal about their decarbonization yet one of their most heralded ways to reduce their emissions is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Similar to airline offsets, I feel CCS is not just a distraction but a permit to carry on burning fossil fuels. It is very expensive and ultimately the jury is out in terms of whether it removes anywhere near the amount of carbon it is supposed to. Funds would be better spent in many other, more cost effective, ways to reduce carbon emissions at the pace required. 

These aren’t the only greenwash sub categories, but they are the key ones. And ultimately I want the overall message here to be to ‘read between the lines’: don’t accept the claims at face value and, as a consumer, push companies to change by growing the demand for truly sustainable products.   

Here’s one final thought to leave you with. 

Think of greenwash like you do food labelling. Glossy packets tell you how your product is ‘low in fat’ but hide the vast amount of sugar in the product, which is ultimately bad if not worse for your health. We need to be aware that some things are not as they seem and, just as with our bodies, a little bit of research can help us make the right choice for a healthier planet. 

Hear more from Kat in conversation with Jeff on the Doing The Opposite Podcast.

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