How are companies affected by greenwashing?

3 Minutes
Obfuscating the reality of a company's environmental impact, leading to consumer confusion and disengagement.

Greenwashing is a term that has gained popularity in recent years as environmental concerns have become more prominent in the public consciousness. It refers to the practice of companies falsely claiming to be environmentally friendly or exaggerating their environmental efforts to gain a competitive advantage and attract environmentally conscious consumers. This deceptive practice is becoming increasingly common as consumers are becoming more environmentally aware and actively seeking out environmentally friendly products and services.

The negative effects of greenwashing are wide-reaching and can be quite damaging for businesses. Firstly, it can lead to a loss of trust from consumers, who may feel duped or misled about the environmental impact of a company's products or services. Secondly, it can lead to legal consequences, as deceptive or misleading environmental claims may violate consumer protection laws. Thirdly, it can create a competitive disadvantage for companies that are truly committed to environmental sustainability, as they may be unfairly lumped in with those that are merely paying lip service to environmental concerns.

This practice can have several negative effects on companies:

Loss of Consumer Trust: When consumers discover that a company has been making false or misleading claims about its environmental practices, it can lead to a loss of trust and credibility. This can result in a decline in sales and damage the company's reputation. A study by Manseek Choi and Soonwook Hong found that Chaebol firms (large family-owned business conglomerates in South Korea) with good governance did not actually spend more on charitable donations, despite the positive relations between governance and donation expenses in general. This suggests that good Chaebol companies determined by ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) metrics may not be real charitable companies, providing counterevidence against the notion that firms with a higher ESG score are more likely to be charitable.

While charitable giving can be an important element of a company's environmental and social governance (ESG) strategy, it is important to consider the overall context of a company's operations to understand its commitment to ESG principles. Simply focusing on the amount of money donated can be misleading if it is not considered in relation to a company's broader operations and practices. It is also important to consider the motivations behind a company's charitable giving, as it is possible for companies to make donations for reasons other than a genuine commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

Legal Consequences: Making false or misleading environmental claims can lead to legal penalties in some countries. For example, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has guidelines for environmental marketing claims and can take action against companies that engage in deceptive advertising.

The FTC has established the "Green Guides" to help businesses understand and comply with the law when making environmental claims. These guidelines cover a range of topics, including renewable energy, biodegradability, recyclability, and more. Businesses that make false or misleading environmental claims can face fines and other legal penalties if they are found to be in violation of the guidelines. So, there is a real risk for companies that are not transparent and truthful about their environmental practices.

Competitive Disadvantage: Companies that invest in genuine environmental improvements may be at a competitive disadvantage if their competitors engage in greenwashing. This can make it more difficult for truly environmentally friendly companies to succeed in the market.

When companies engage in disingenuous environmental marketing, it creates an unfair playing field for companies that are making genuine investments in sustainability. This can discourage companies from investing in environmentally responsible practices and innovations, which can have a detrimental effect on society and the environment. It is critical that regulators and consumers have the tools to distinguish between companies that are making meaningful environmental efforts and those that are merely engaging in greenwashing.

Hindrance to Environmental Progress: Greenwashing can create confusion among consumers and make it more difficult for them to make informed decisions. This can lead to a lack of support for genuine environmental initiatives and undermine efforts to promote sustainability.

The study by Choi and Hong also found that better governance is positively related to charitable donations, suggesting that better governance increases charitable donations. However, governance is negatively related to charitable donations given by Chaebol firms, suggesting that charitable donations of Chaebol firms would focus on advertisement and investment attraction, rather than focus on actual and socially meaningful charitable activities.

To avoid greenwashing, companies should be transparent about their environmental practices, provide verifiable information about the environmental benefits of their products or services, and avoid making vague or unverifiable claims. Additionally, third-party certifications and labels can provide an independent verification of a company's environmental claims and help build trust with consumers.

In essence, greenwashing can obfuscate the reality of a company's environmental impact, leading to consumer confusion and disengagement. Without transparency and accountability, meaningful environmental progress is threatened. However, there is hope that with persistent effort, we can move towards a future where businesses are honest about their environmental impact and consumers can make informed decisions. It is imperative that companies take their environmental responsibilities seriously and avoid the temptation to engage in greenwashing. Not only does this deceptive practice damage a company's reputation and bottom line, but it also undermines the broader efforts to address the urgent environmental challenges we face. Regulators, consumers, and businesses themselves all have a role to play in ensuring that environmental claims are truthful and meaningful.

By demanding transparency, holding companies accountable, and supporting businesses that are genuinely committed to sustainability, we can help to create a more sustainable and equitable future for all. Ultimately, achieving sustainability in business requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond merely avoiding greenwashing. It involves a deeper understanding of the motivations of entrepreneurs, a commitment to ethical and socially responsible conduct, and a robust system of measurement and accountability. By adopting such a comprehensive approach, businesses can not only improve their own sustainability practices but also contribute to broader social and environmental goals.


  • Another Form of Greenwashing: The Effects of Chaebol Firms’ Corporate Governance Performance on the Donations by Manseek Choi and Soonwook Hong. (1)
  • Effects of Greenwashing on the Markets of the Western World by Thessalia Mysirli and Dimitra Axarli. (2)
  • Greenwashing and Environmental Communication: Effects on Stakeholders’ Perceptions by R. Torelli, Federica Balluchi, and A. Lazzini.(3)
  • Relationship between the Degree of Internationalization and Greenwashing of Environmental Responsibilities in China-Based on the Legitimacy Perspective by Ke Zhang, Z. Pan, and M. Janardhanan. (4)

Sign up for our newsletter and alerts.

Related Insights

How do you balance sustainability vs short-term initiatives?

Sustainability should be viewed as a strategic objective, rather than just a set of short-term environmental or social initiatives.
4 Minutes

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development, while a complex and evolving field, presents both challenges and opportunities.
8 Minutes

How do I engage employees in sustainability?

The path to a sustainable future is not a solitary journey but a collective endeavour.
4 Minutes

What does sustainability mean for stakeholders?

Where economic growth harmonises with social progress and environmental stewardship.
4 Minutes

Sustainability in practice: mini case studies of successful implementations

Constructing a better world for ourselves and generations to come.
4 Minutes

Would you like to speak to one of our experts?