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Greenwashing - definition, examples and avoidance

Greenwashing - How companies use environmental lies to make themselves look greener than they are

Do you know what Greenwashing is? It's a term that everyone should know. Companies use targeted marketing measures to present themselves as more sustainable and environmentally friendly than they actually are. Greenwashing is mainly practiced by companies that know full well that they are destroying our environment with their products and services.

In this article, I would like to show you how companies use greenwashing to distract attention from their problem areas and how you can recognize and expose this scam. From the definition and unprotected designations to examples and tips for everyday life. Let's go!

Here is another short Table of contents for you:

  1. Definition
  2. Examples
  3. Recognize greenwashing
  4. Designations
  5. Closing words

Documentary Tip: Be sure to check out the documentation "The green lie" by Werner Boote. It gives you an even deeper insight into the work of companies that practice greenwashing.

What is greenwashing exactly?

Greenwashing refers to a company's attempt to achieve a "green image" through marketing and PR measures, but without implementing corresponding measures in the context of value creation. This suggests environmental friendliness and corporate responsibility to consumers.₁

In this way, a company disguises contrary, environmentally harmful activities. Many companies often really do have the intention, green marketing to operate. But they often run the risk of slipping into a kind of greenwashing, for example because of cost savings.

Forms of greenwashing

Basically, all greenwashing measures have one thing in common: they distract from other problemscaused by the products of the advertising company. Here I have compiled some types of greenwashing for you:

1. environmentally friendly product belittles the entire range

For example, a fashion company that uses an organic sweater on offer to greenwash its own brand, even though 98 percent of its own range is not produced sustainably.

2. green claims and vague statements distract from the core business

For example, an energy company that advertises wind power even though 99 percent of its energy comes from coal power.

3. advertising with self-evident facts

For example, a hairspray supplier that still advertises its products as "CFC-free", even though chlorofluorocarbons have been banned as a product component since the 1990s.₂

4. companies from environmentally damaging industries get involved

For example, an airline that advertises that CO2-emissions from every flight operated by the company are offset by donations to climate protection projects. Certainly not classic greenwashing, but nevertheless a marketing measure that conveys to passengers that flying is sustainable.

5. invented seals of approval

For example, when a company creates its own seal for "grain from controlled cultivation", which at first glance looks like an official, protected seal.

6. juggling technical data and unclear technical terms

For example, when companies print technical numbers of ISO standards on their product packaging. This looks professional, but at second glance it is often just trickery.

7. simply report on greenwashing or sustainability yourself

For example, a food company that privatizes water sources in arid regions (leading to Water shortage and reports on the world's most sustainable companies on its company page and lists itself in it.₃

8. comparison with even more environmentally harmful products

For example, when a company uses a particularly environmentally harmful product to present a slightly less harmful product in a better light.

9. influence on political decision-makers

For example, when a company persuades the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture to relax environmental regulations.

Examples of greenwashing

Greenwashing at Bayer
Bayer, for example, uses these posters for greenwashing / © M. Linn,

I have already given you examples to explain the different forms of greenwashing - but of course there are more practical ways. Here are some examples of companies that practice greenwashing.


In 2018, Bayer took over the globally controversial genetic engineering company Monsanto, which has played a major role in global insect mortality. The image of the Bayer Group has also suffered greatly as a result of the takeover.

Today, the company is once again trying to present itself as greener than it is through targeted greenwashing campaigns. The above is intended to convey to our society that Bayer and climate protection go hand in hand.

German Air Transport Association (BDL)

Air traffic contributes around 4.9 percent to climate change.₄ Nevertheless, the aviation association BDL used targeted greenwashing and the slogan "Flying is the new eco" and the reference to the reduced fuel consumption of aircraft the opposite.


Adidas makes shoes from ocean waste. At least that's what the term "ocean plastic", which Adidas uses for the Parley collection, conveys. However, Adidas has already confirmed that this is not actually marine litter at all, but waste that is collected from coastal regions or saved from the sea.₅ The company has left open how high the proportion of waste from the environment actually is in shoes and other items of clothing.

Notice: At Fashion made from recycled plastic waste I have written down a few more thoughts for you.


This RWE advertising campaign depicted an energy giant planting wind turbines. This gave the impression that RWE was a green company. In fact, the company was only sourcing around 2 percent of its energy from renewables at the time. In fact, only 0.1 percent of the Group's electricity came from wind turbines.₆


At the food company Nestlé, it's hard to know which greenwashing measure to start with. Nestlé is one of the companies primarily responsible for the Plastic waste swirls in the seathat are now circulating in our oceans. After massive criticism of the company, those responsible failed to announce clear targets for reducing or eliminating single-use plastic packaging. The vague objective to calm people down: Plastic packaging is to be made fully recyclable or reusable by 2025 and the proportion of recycled plastic in the company's own products is to be increased - but it has not been defined how high the proportion should ultimately become. The company is therefore greenwashing with vague and unmeasurable claims.

In June 2019, the company even persuaded Julia Klöckner to publish a joint video in which the German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture praised Nestlé to the skies.₇

Nestlé even publishes articles on its website about the world's most sustainable companies and simply includes itself in the ranks.₈

Tip: Take a look at the article about Nestle criticism to learn even more.


Every year, around 2.8 billion Coffee2Go cups are thrown away in Germany, which cannot be recycled due to the mixed plastic. The Starbucks coffee chain is a major contributor to this environmental problem and has repeatedly attracted attention with empty promises of greenwashing. In 2008, for example, the company promised to offer coffee cups that are 100 percent recyclable. In addition, 25 percent of drinks sold over the counter were to be sold in reusable cups. 10 years later, not even one of the two targets had been achieved.₉

Coca Cola

A study by the Break Free From Plastic initiative has shown that in 484 clean-up campaigns carried out in over 50 countries, Coca-Cola was one of the main polluters of plastic. Plastic waste in the environment is.₁₀

Coca Cola engages in brazen greenwashing by boasting about a plastic bottle made of 25 percent ocean plastic and thus legitimizing the pollution of the oceans.₁₁₁


Cheap meat, chemicals, exploitation₁₂ and lots of packaging waste. In 2010, for example, the company produced around 41,000 tons of beef, 3,300 tons of poultry and 3,500 tons of pork.₁₃ This alone caused McDonald's to produce a massive CO2-emissions. The company simply makes its money from the fact that people want to fill up quickly and pay little attention to what they eat.

As something of an awareness is developing in our society, those responsible reacted in 2009 and changed the background color of the logo from red to green. Today, the branches also make a much more natural and environmentally friendly impression. Of course, this does not make the fast food chain sustainable.

BP (Beyond Petroleum)

For many years, the oil company declared toxic refinery residues as harmless industrial goods and engaged in illegal waste disposal - including in Germany.

BP tried to wash its bad image green by changing its logo and name, for example. The logo was redesigned as a sun surrounded by green biomass. Even the traditional name was changed from "British Petroleum" to "Beyond Petroleum". Greenwashing was also carried out with empty promises. The solar business was to be "doubled", generating enough energy for 40,000 German households per year. BP, for example, had a turnover of over 25 billion US dollars in 2005 and only earned 0.13 percent of its turnover from renewable energies.₁₄ These facts make the elaborate greenwashing attempts fall flat pretty quickly.

Notice: You will certainly notice that these are usually large corporations. These companies make incredible profits. If they were really interested in sustainability, they would invest their profits in the development of sustainable technologies instead of brazen greenwashing. This would certainly also have a positive effect on the company's public image.

Recognize, report and avoid greenwashing

Corporate greenwashing

To avoid falling for greenwashing yourself, you have to learn to scrutinize products and offers very carefully. However, it's not easy for us as consumers. After all, we can't check every company and every supplier in a supply chain. 

But there are a few things we can do to recognize greenwashing more quickly. Paying attention to the exact wording - that really helps a lot! And, of course, it is also worth taking a closer look at the company advertising. It is always a good sign when companies are transparent and provide insights into their work.

Tip: If you have the feeling that a company is greenwashing and therefore deceiving consumers, you can report this to the consumer advice center.

Commonly used but unprotected terms, images and tricks for greenwashing

If companies use these terms, images or tricks for their products, services and advertisements, then it could well be greenwashing:

"Ocean Plastic" / "Ozeanplastik"

The term suggests that a company manufactures products from marine litter. However, this is often just cheap greenwashing, as the word can be used freely.

"Natural aroma"

Doesn't that sound nice? A naturally flavored strawberry yogurt is nothing more than a strawberry-flavored yogurt made from sawdust. The euphonious name is only allowed because sawdust is made from the natural raw material wood.₁₅


This term is also not protected and can simply be used freely without explanation. An ideal basis for greenwashing.

"Climate neutral" / "Climate friendly"

Especially since the climate change has now become one of the main topics of the mainstream media, these terms are becoming increasingly common on products and advertisements. These are also not protected and can therefore be used freely.

"Environmentally friendly"

It is also easy to claim that a product is environmentally friendly. As long as this is not checked by experts and consumers do not intervene, there will be no trouble for greenwashing companies.

"Organic" / "Ecological"

These two terms are not protected. The terms "organic" and "eco", on the other hand, are protected. Here it is particularly important to pay attention to the choice of words.

"Regional" / "From here"

The terms can be used without explanation. There is neither a definition of where regionality begins nor where it ends.


The substance has been banned by law since 1991, but even today there are still products on which, for example, the lid is decorated with this claim.

"100% environmentally friendly"

This term is often used. But 100% environmentally friendly is not possible! Every product has a value chain in which, for example, CO2 is emitted. It is therefore a phrase that is often used to engage in greenwashing.

Fake seals and certificates

The self-designed environmental seal "Grain from controlled contract farming", for example, is not an official seal, even if it certainly gives the impression that it is.

Green color scheme

The color green usually stands for sustainability. This is why it is often used for products and services that are absolutely not sustainable.

Beautiful pictures

Pay attention to and question the imagery! Chickens or cattle on a fresh green meadow, fresh flower meadows, baby kittens and butterflies make an impression and distract from greenwashing.

Question: Can you think of any other terms that can be misleading? Then please leave me a comment.

Which protected terms avoid greenwashing?

Most greenwashing measures tell consumers that they can buy the products and don't have to have a guilty conscience. But don't let yourself be fobbed off that easily. Companies may only use the following terms if they comply with all the underlying guidelines:

"Organic" / "Eco"

The terms are protected by law and may only be used in compliance with all underlying guidelines.

"From controlled organic cultivation"

This term is also protected and may not be used without verified proof.

To avoid inadvertently supporting greenwashing, you should therefore consciously pay attention to the exact choice of words.

Tip: Use the NABU seal check app! It shows you with a simple photo of the product whether food is ecologically recommended or not. It is also worth using the CodeCheck app. For example, you can see at a glance whether foods contain palm oil or Microplastics contain

No chance for greenwashing!

Somehow it is already indicative and very sadthe extent to which companies are trying to conceal activities that ecologically or ethically unsound and are therefore simply no longer up to date. In my opinion, those responsible for greenwashing are also disrespectful. Not only towards consumers, but above all towards their own children, who, if they were all like their parents, would have to grow up and live in a destroyed world.

Is it worth it? Is it really worth it to work for a company that is destroying our environment and dividing our society? At this point, I would like to refer once again to the sustainable job portal point out. There you will find a job with added value for you, our environment and our society. 😉 Otherwise, all we can do is continue to speak up, sign petitions and, if necessary, trigger a "shitstorm".

Do you have any questions or suggestions about the greenwashing article? Then feel free to write me a comment below this post.

Stay sustainable,

Christoph from CareElite - Plastic-free living

PS: Be sure to check out my article on sustainable documentations to. There you can get even more input about the Environmental problems of our time and their potential solutions.

₁ N. Lin-Hi: Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon - Greenwashing, available at [23.11.2019].

₂ n-tv Nachrichtenfernsehen GmbH: Inadmissible advertising - "CFC-free" is not an advantage, available at [22.11.2019].

₃,₈ Nestlé Deutschland AG: The world's most sustainable companies, available at [23.11.2019].

₄ David S. Lee, David W. Fahey, Piers M. Forster; et al.Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century, available at [24.11.2019].

₅ ARD (2019): Greenwashing with "Ocean Plastic" | REPORT MAINZ, YouTube, 31.07.2019, Web, 24.11.2019 at 09:40, in:

₆ GREENALITY e.K.: Es Grünt So Grün: "Best Of" Greenwashing, available at [25.11.2019].

₇ ZEIT ONLINE GmbH: Julia Klöckner is criticized for video with Nestlé boss (as of 05.06.2019), available at [24.11.2019].

₉ K. Martinho: Starbucks promises, yet again, to make a recyclable coffee cup, available at [24.11.2019].

₁₀,₁₁ Deutsche Umwelthilfe (2019): Deutsche Umwelthilfe criticizes Coca-Cola for brazen greenwashing with disposable bottles made of ocean plastic (as of 25.10.2019), available at [24.11.2019].

₁₂ DER SPIEGEL GmbH & Co. KG: Employees sue McDonald's for "theft" (as at: 14.03.2014), available at [23.11.2019].

₁₃ DER SPIEGEL GmbH & Co. KG: "McDonald's is not green!" (as at: 31.12.2011), available at

₁₄ BUND - Regionalverband Südlicher Oberrhein: Greenwash bei British Petroleum - Der BP-Schwindel (as at: 17.12.2016), available at [24.11.2019].

₁₅ Greensurance® Für Mensch und Umwelt UG: Caution! "Greenwashing", available at [23.11.2019].

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* Links with asterisks are so-called Affiliate linksIf you click on it and buy something, you automatically and actively support my work with, as I receive a small share of the proceeds - and of course nothing changes in the product price. Many thanks for your support and best regards, Christoph!

Christoph Schulz

Christoph Schulz

I'm Christoph, an environmental scientist and author - and here at CareElite I'm campaigning against plastic waste in the environment, climate change and all the other major environmental problems of our time. Together with other environmentally conscious bloggers, I want to give you tips & tricks for a naturally healthy, sustainable life as well as your personal development.

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