A close up of a person holding plastic cups that say "Eco" in green lettering and covered in sand.

Unsustainable: The Greenwashing of Climate Action

Aware that taking a stance on prominent social issues attracts consumers and profits, corporations often build brand loyalty by boasting about grand initiatives without putting in the work to make them happen. The worsening climate crisis, in conjunction with increasing social consciousness regarding environmental friendliness, has opened up a new market for them.  Many now partake in greenwashing, “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound” (Investopedia). 

As the digital age has opened consumers’ eyes to unethical business practices and the devastating climate crisis, it’s becoming abundantly clear how the biggest corporations are destroying the planet. Companies are aware of this shift toward sustainability, but they are not willing to uproot their problematic business practices because it would likely increase their expenses or harm the environment in another way. For example, replacing plastic bottles with glass bottles would only increase a company’s expenses by approximately $0.01, but transporting heavier products would require 40% more energy. This would produce more carbon dioxide pollution and would increase transport costs by up to five times per bottle (BBC). Greenwashing allows corporations to avoid incurring these costs while still appealing to consumers’ commitment to sustainability. The incentive for companies to greenwash is to reap the profit benefits of appearing eco-friendly without paying the prices associated with green business practices. 

• Incorporate sustainable practices in your own life by fighting fast fashion and embracing climate-friendly food alternatives. Utilize Truth in Advertising’s list of companies accused of greenwashing to avoid supporting unsustainable businesses.

• Sign Global Citizen’s petition demanding that world leaders help stop the climate crisis. Donate to the climate change charities Tomorow.io has identified as being the most notable. Volunteer with grassroots environmental initiatives near you.

• Find a Sierra Club chapter in your community or search for local opportunities on Idealist.

The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. At the time, oil company Chevron authorized a series of television and print ads boasting about its dedication to environmentalism while simultaneously violating both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act by spilling oil into several wildlife refuges (Business News Daily). This move allowed them to maintain a positive public image by putting up a facade that they are invested in their environmental responsibility without following through.

Environmental imagery in promotions is one of the most common forms of greenwashing. DuPont, a chemical company, engaged in this practice  when they announced their double-hulled oil tankers with ads displaying marine animals joyously “prancing” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The irony is that DuPont was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. the year that these ads aired. Another form of greenwashing involves buzzwords like “organic” or “natural” to distract from greater risk. For example, water bottle companies attract consumers by claiming to be “all-natural,” boasting about “plant-based bottles,” and displaying vivid images of clean bodies of water while simultaneously producing billions of dollars of plastic waste (Clean Water Action). 

Greenwashing directly violates corporate social responsibility. Corporations put in surface-level effort to make themselves more attractive to consumers without actively living up to their sustainability mission. The lack of transparency paired with a lack of effort only benefits corporations. Greenwashing creates a distrusting relationship between corporations and consumers, and ultimately prevents people from supporting actual environmentally-friendly businesses and initiatives. 

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a 1.6 million-square-kilometer offshore plastic accumulation zone (Forbes). Twice the size of Texas, the Garbage Patch has led to plastic entering marine animals’ diets, resulting in microplastics in seafood that humans ultimately consume. The existence of this patch is the result of not prioritizing actual sustainability measures over low costs. Even plant-based plastic is not as green as companies make it sound. Biodegradable and plant-based plastics can negatively impact ecosystems because they don’t break down quickly or completely (Ensia). When these materials accumulate, they can contaminate soil and water resources due to lack of decomposition, potentially harming or killing animals when accidentally consumed. 

Another leading contributor to the destruction of the environment is major corporations’ production of fossil fuels. Oil and natural gas do not currently have any substitutes that match their availability, fitness for purpose, or abundance (Brookings). Society has a strong reliance on fossil fuels for electricity, industrial processes, and powering transportation. The technology utilized to extract these fossil fuels makes them the most economically-efficient energy sources, so companies have no profit-driven incentive to replace them. The speed and scale at which these fossil fuels are being extracted have significantly contributed to climate change. If fossil fuel extraction continues at the same rate over the next 28 years as it has between 1988 and 2017, global average temperatures will be on course to rise by approximately 39℉ (The Guardian). A substantial increase in temperature would result in worsening air and water quality, rising sea levels, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and more (Environmental Protection Agency). Large Corporations are leading contributors to the climate crisis: “Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988” (The Guardian). 

While greenwashing is a false solution, there are several ways to make a legitimate positive impact on the environment. Addressing greenwashing requires effort from consumers and businesses. Consumers must try to avoid buying from companies that make false sustainability claims; additionally, consumers can volunteer to make a hands-on impact on the environment in their community. GreenBiz provides an extensive list of green volunteering options ranging from political endeavors to working with nonprofits. Companies can utilize guides (BSR) to learn how to avoid greenwashing and implement greener business practices. When consumers stop supporting greenwashing companies, they force them to prioritize environmental action.

Environmental protection is an individual and collective duty. However, major corporations are the leading contributors to the planet’s current climate crisis. Corporate environmental responsibility merely asks that these corporations clean up the mess they largely contributed to making. Since their unsustainable practices negatively impact the environment, it is not unfair to expect them to actively work to reverse the damage.


• Greenwashing is when a company pretends to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes. 

• The state of the environment is rapidly worsening as companies continue to produce fossil fuels and contribute to pollution. 

• Greenwashing is a false solution, but a commitment to sustainability from consumers and companies can create actual change.

2400 1600 Sydney Cobb

Sydney Cobb

Sydney Cobb (she/her) is a rising sophomore studying business at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Both on and off campus, she centers her work around social justice and cultural competency. Instagram @sydcobb

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