When green isn’t what it seems

by Kristina McKean

Shopping as a sustainably-minded consumer can be a minefield. While on the hunt for a phone case recently (a purchase that should theoretically be simple), I was torn between products that ranged from “biodegradable” to “made from recycled material” to “carbon neutral” and everything in between. While assessing the various options’ ability to protect my phone was difficult enough, wading through and evaluating the truth or accuracy of various environmental claims felt almost impossible.

The task to be environmentally conscious becomes even more challenging when you’re trying to move quickly through someplace like a grocery store and are constantly bombarded with a cacophony of environment-friendly claims such as “natural,” “eco-friendly” and “green,” which are easy to fall prey to when making a split-second decision.

But what substantive weight do these terms carry and how can one know which companies are being genuine about their commitment to the environment or mitigating climate change? Even a more specific term such as “recyclable” is dubious despite the fanfare some companies give it, considering only 9% of the plastic no longer in use since 1950 has been recycled.

As consumers’ awareness of sustainability and their willingness to pay for sustainable products continues to increase, corporate marketing teams are incentivized to ensure their products look as “green” as possible. This can sometimes result in what is known as “greenwashing,” which is when a company paints itself or its products to be more sustainable than the truth. So, how can diligent consumers dig through the weeds of these claims? And is the onus solely on individual consumers?

Legal and Regulatory Initiatives

Though individuals have some power as consumers to reward truly sustainable companies and products, recent legal and regulatory activity may provide more substantial consequences for companies that overstate their sustainable claims and inch into the realm of greenwashing.

Currently, two of the main regulatory bodies for corporations in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), are in the process of developing new rules surrounding environmental claims.  Earlier this year, the FTC raised the prospect of revising its Green Guides, which directly address and put limiters on environmental marketing claims. Although the Green Guides are not in themselves punitive, the FTC can take action against companies making deceptive or false claims.

While the FTC considers revising its rules, the SEC has proposed changes that would require companies to make climate-related disclosures in their registration and reports. These additional disclosures include a company’s climate risks, the potential impact of these risks on the company’s financials and strategy, as well as GHG emissions. Though the final set of rules were anticipated by spring of 2023, pushback from the business community has delayed the SEC until fall of this year.

Beyond criticism of the specific SEC rules, the United States is seeing an overall pushback on the use of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria in investment. Just in the first half of this year, legislation targeting ESG criteria was introduced in 37 states, further complicating the regulatory landscape.

While regulatory changes remain in flux, climate change litigation as a whole has been on the rise in recent years. Worldwide, approximately 60% of all climate change cases since 1986 were filed between 2015 and 2022, with around 25% of cases filed between 2020 and 2022. Though the majority of litigation is focused on governmental action, a growing number of cases are aimed at corporate actors, holding them accountable for misleading claims. Cases targeting greenwashing in the form of misleading reporting or marketing have been filed against large corporations such as Delta Air Lines, Exxon, Coca-Cola, Danone, and Shell. There is potential for these cases to grow in number as regulatory changes increase the responsibility of companies to disclose environmental information accurately. The threat of legal action may also increase the incidence of “greenhushing”, wherein a company will keep its climate-related targets close to its chest in order to avoid potential scrutiny.

Consumer Action

If you don’t have the time or resources to advocate for regulatory change or join a class action lawsuit, you may be wondering what you can do to ensure you don’t fall under the spell of greenwashing. The truth is, it can be difficult to know if a company is being fully transparent and representing data in a way that is not manipulative. For example, in 2022, H&M was exposed for including inaccurate environmental scorecards on its website, leading consumers to believe its clothing was more sustainable than in reality.

However, there are tactics consumers can employ to avoid the traps of greenwashing:

  • Do your research. Check out a company’s website to see if they provide further context to a “green” claim. Do they publish a sustainability report annually, or even quarterly? Do they track and have targets for their emission reductions? Do they provide concrete sustainability data and targets that are readily accessible to consumers?
  • Look for third-party verifications of sustainability, such as:
    • B Corp Certified
    • Forest Stewardship Council
    • Rainforest Alliance
    • Energy Star
    • Global Organic Textile Standard
  • Be skeptical. If you see vague claims such as “green” or “natural” with nothing to back it up, be aware the company may be employing green marketing techniques to sway good-intentioned consumers without putting in the work to be more sustainable.
  • In order to reduce the impact of plastics on our environment, it is best to minimize consumption of single use plastics altogether rather than swapping one plastic out for a seemingly more green alternative. If you must use plastic, do your best to know what is possible where you live and consume products. A product is only truly “recyclable” or “compostable” if there is the appropriate infrastructure to process those items where you live and consume.


As overall awareness of sustainability among consumers continues to increase, greenwashing is not likely to disappear. Consumers concerned with climate change may feel an ethical duty to only support companies that have a legitimate commitment to sustainability, but consumer choice alone cannot keep companies in check as urgently as is warranted by the climate crisis. Regulatory and legal action is also necessary to ensure companies back up sustainable claims with facts and do not prey on the good intentions of consumers.

If the easy way out is made much more difficult, companies will be incentivized to actually invest the time and resources necessary to become more sustainable and actually use accurate claims to compete for sustainably-minded consumers

Kristina McKean is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.



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