The Seven Deadly Greenwashing Sins
The author Anthony Liccione provided a definition of gullibility that neatly describes modern marketing techniques: “the mind can fool the heart, as the heart can fool the mind.”
The increasing eco-consciousness of consumers over the decades has, unsurprisingly, been recognised and exploited by companies in their marketing activities. The extent to which buyers are becoming increasingly aware of the effects their purchases can have for the environment is made apparent by a 2015 poll by international marketing research firm Nielsen, showing that 66 per cent of consumers globally are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. This has resulted in thousands of companies in all industries, from car to cleaning product manufacturers, making green claims on their products in order to seduce customers. The term ‘greenwashing’, first coined by environmental activist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s, has been used to describe the use of green claims made by companies to hide their environmental wrongdoings.
TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm (now part of UL, a global safety science company), has established ‘seven sins’ to form a framework to judge whether a company is greenwashing. Additionally, the ‘sins’ have been listed simply to serve a dual purpose of informing consumers as to how greenwashing is implemented. Theses sins include:
Sin of the hidden trade-off: disregarding critical environmental issues and making claims drawn from arbitrarily narrow attributes
Sin of no proof: no reliable supporting information or third-party certification is provided to uphold environmental claims
Sin of vagueness: deliberately utilizing broad claims which will likely be misconstrued by customers (e.g. “all-natural”)
Sin of irrelevance: forming an environment claim from irrelevant information (e.g. stating that a product is free of illegal chemicals such as CFC)
Sin of lesser of two evils: use a minor environmental evil to distract the customer from the malevolent factor causing the most serious harm
Sin of fibbing: falsification of environmental claims
Sin of false labels: adoption of fake labels or third-party endorsement (e.g. images stating “eco-preferred” or labels attained through self-certification)
Following a 2010 study carried out on 4,744 products from companies across the globe, TerraChoice concluded that: only 5 per cent of the products analysed did not commit any of the seven sins and 70.1 per cent of the products which were accused of greenwashing failed to evidence their claims, with many products committing more than one ‘sin’, illustrating the ease with which companies are able to successfully market false environmental claims.
In common with many environmental transgressions, the lack of coordinated international legislation - and in most cases even national legislation - facilitates the continuance of these malpractices which are left mostly unchecked with little prosecution. However, the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) brought Swedish retailer H&M to the headlines in 2010 following the launch of its ‘Conscious Collection’ which they stated breached Norwegian marketing laws. H&M claimed that every item within the range was made from sustainably sourced material, such as recycled polyester and Tencel (derived from wood cellulose). However, as highlighted by the Norwegian Consumer Authority H&M failed to state the percentage of sustainable material used per item, which put the sustainability of the collection into question as their products could contain minimal amounts of sustainable materials. Following these allegations, a H&M spokesperson stated that they were working in conjunction with the CA to make their marketing more ‘precise’ praising the CA for shedding ‘light on marketing of sustainable alternatives.’
The carbon emissions created by fashion retailers’ in their manufacturing processes is another area which is frequently greenwashed. This is exemplified through the fashion group Inditex, owners of brands such as Zara and Pull & Bear, who do disclose their annual carbon footprint. Nevertheless, they only take responsibility for the emissions which are created transporting products to their shops. Therefore, the process of production itself and transport of materials to their hubs, which are culpable for creating the greatest emissions, is neglected. However, this act of greenwashing is not exclusively committed by Inditex. Guy Pearse, environmentalist and author of Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams, notes many of the world’s major brands disown emissions created during the supply chain which account for at least 90 percent of the production’s total carbon footprint. This further demonstrates the extent to which companies are glossing over the complete truth and greenwashing to deceive eco-conscious shoppers.
Greater transparency and less greenwashing from companies is necessary for customers to be able to make informed decisions based on how sustainable the products actually are. Without enforced regulation it is extremely unlikely that brands will stop greenwashing due to the economic benefits it provides. Only increased consumer consciousness and understanding of the implementation of greenwashing will reduce the effectiveness of these clever and inconspicuous marketing tricks. Nevertheless, this does not mean to say that customers should stop buying from companies whose products claim to be green, and who implement some greenwashing ‘sins’ in their advertising, as even modest efforts to be more sustainable are better than nothing.
Dahl, Richard. ‘Green Washing: Do You Know What You're Buying?’ Environmental Health Perspectives 118, no. 6 (2010): A246-252.
Hitti, Natashah. ‘H&M called out for “greenwashing” in its Conscious fashion collection.’ De Zeen (2 August 2019). Available at:
Marquis, Christopher, Toffel, Michael W, and Zhou, Yanhua. ‘Scrutiny, Norms, and Selective Disclosure: A Global Study of Greenwashing.’ Organization Science (Providence, R.I.) 27, no. 2 (2016): 483-504.
Pearse, Guy. Greenwash : Big Brands and Carbon Scams. Collingwood, Victoria: Black, 2012.
TerraChoice. ‘Sins of Greenwashing.’ Available at: