Greenwashing Explained

Greenwashing Explained

In today’s world, more than ever, companies want and need to make a difference to their environmental impact, and to become more sustainable.  However, it is essential to ensure environmental claims are accurate and transparent, to avoid a practice known as “greenwashing”.

Greenwashing is a term used to describe the practice of companies making false or exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of their products or services. This can take many forms, including misleading labelling, false certifications, and exaggerated marketing claims.

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Greenwashing’ or ‘Greensheen’ is by definition “the disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”.

Specifically relating to carbon emissions – one common form of greenwashing is for companies to claims that they are ‘carbon neutral’, ‘carbon negative’, ‘net zero’ or even ‘climate positive’ through offsetting their emissions as a business – without the using appropriate and verified standards and methodologies.

This can occur with both the calculation and/or offsetting of the emissions of a business. 

Greenwashing – Carbon Footprint Calculations

For calculating the carbon footprint of a business – there are many tools available to businesses to help provide a rough guide of their emissions – such as online calculating tools/software, or simply making calculations internally, using average statistics and figures.  These methodologies certainly have a purpose – to help give a general picture of the businesses environmental impact.  However, these methods are only a guide – and offsetting these estimated figures (without accurate measurement) and claiming ‘carbon neutral/negative’ status is by definition – greenwashing, and inaccurate claims by a business.

For companies to avoid this – calculations must be proven, using the correct standards, and showing the methodology used.  The most widely used are ISO 14064, and the GHG Emissions Protocol Accounting Standard – the corporate standards used by businesses globally.  By completing an audit, and reporting via these standards – businesses can demonstrate accurately and transparently, how their emissions have been calculated, and so avoid miss-leading claims to stakeholders.

In addition to using the correct standards – third party validation is also recommended to ensure the methodologies, and standards have been used correctly.

Greenwashing – Carbon Offsetting

In addition to calculation, greenwashing can also occur in the offsetting of the emissions of a business.  Simply planting trees (as a business, or via a third party), and estimating the carbon captured from the trees (presently, and in the future), can be miss-leading, as figures used are often exaggerated, incorrect (for the tree species), and also may never occur (if estimating what a tree may capture in the future, which is not guaranteed).  In addition, for carbon accounting, emissions must have already been captured to be used in emissions claims by businesses – and so new tree planting cannot be used in carbon neutral/negative claims by a business.  Other miss-leading or estimated claims can also occur in manufacturing processes, or the capture of carbon in buildings or products.

To avoid greenwashing with offsetting – companies must again use verified offsetting – which ensures both the carbon captured, and sold is correct and validated.  The most commonly used standards used by businesses are known as the Verra - Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the Gold Standard - Voluntary Emission Reductions (VER) and the United Nations - Certified Emission Reductions (CER) programmes. By using these standards – only emissions already captured are recorded as offsets, the projects are audited via these third parties (to ensure the emissions claims are correct and valid), and the sale of offsets are also regulated (to ensure they are not sold multiple times and ‘double counted’).

By using these standards, businesses can ensure the measurements, and tonnes of CO2e offset are accurate, and verified.

Other Greenwashing Terms

In addition to carbon emissions claims, greenwashing can also occur in the use of vague and ambiguous terms such as "eco" and "sustainable" and “green” without proper explanation or support.  These terms – with no specific definition, are often purposefully vague, and used across the business, without specifically referring to what is (or is not) environmentally friendly.  Without transparent details of the claims made, companies can also fall into the greenwashing trap using common phrases and terminology.


So what can businesses do?

First and foremost – any environmental claims must be backed up with accurate, and transparent information on the claim made.

The terms ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ are quite subjective – and so are best avoided, unless real detailed information can be provided.

For a lot of businesses – carbon emissions reporting and claims are the best way to accurately demonstrate their environmental action, as this is a measurable way to record, and reduce your environmental impact.  To avoid greenwashing in this area - the correct standards must be used in both the calculation, and offsetting of the business.

What to do more as a business?  Do you need further guidance?  Contact our consultants today for more information here.