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Greenwashing seems to be everywhere these days. Complaints about greenwashing have targeted major companies of all kinds, from oil and gas firms to clothing retailers.

But what exactly is greenwashing, how does it work, and … is it legal?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies make their products or practices appear more environmentally friendly than they really are.

It includes everything from slight exaggerations about a company’s goods or services, to false or misleading statements about its environmental track record, and it can be found on websites, social media, advertisements, emails, packaging and labels on products and promotional material inside stores.

Corporations use greenwashing as a marketing technique to attract more customers and make bigger profits — all while they continue to pollute.

It can be a cheap and convenient way for a business to enjoy the reputational benefits of being green, without putting in the hard work — like getting off of fossil fuels, or redesigning products with less-polluting materials.

How is greenwashing harmful?

Companies that greenwash are not telling the whole truth about their products or services.

That means people could make less educated choices about which products to buy. It also means businesses offering genuinely sustainable alternatives could lose customers to dirtier competitors.

This is part of a larger problem of climate delay. Fossil fuels are polluting our air and poisoning our water. Climate change is already having destructive effects on vulnerable populations like racialized and low-income people, Indigenous Peoples, women, children and seniors. The way to slow this destruction is to dramatically slash our use of oil, gas and coal.

But if people have been misled to think fossil fuels just aren’t all that bad, they may be more comfortable with a society that continues to use them en masse, one that continues not holding industry to account for its planet-warming pollution.

What are some examples of greenwashing?

Perhaps the most obvious technique is when companies use vague buzzwords like “natural” or “eco-friendly” in their advertisements, or on product packaging, when these qualities did not have any significant impact on the environment compared to similar products.

But there are many other techniques. One is when companies cherry-pick information to show off their best side, while hiding uglier truths. For example, companies can boast about cutting one type of pollution, while ignoring other types that actually represent the majority of its emissions.

Greenwashing is also when a company promotes some green initiatives it undertook, like investing in renewables, while remaining silent about other actions it also took, like lobbying against climate policy.

Companies may also advertise their use of “carbon offset” programs — the idea of making up for pollution in one place by cutting it in another — while leaving out the details of how those programs actually work. Many offset programs are opaque and some are alleged to be ineffective.

Yet another technique is when companies say they plan to cut emissions using innovative technology, but don’t explain that it’s still in development and hasn’t been proven commercially at the scale necessary for significant change.

Is greenwashing illegal in Canada?

The federal Competition Bureau, an independent agency, says greenwashing can be a form of deceptive marketing. That can be illegal under the Competition Act, which has rules against making “false or misleading” claims.

The bureau has said it takes deceptive environmental claims seriously, and the penalty can be serious, like fines or jail time. But so far there has been only one high-profile example — when coffee pod maker Keurig Canada reached a $3 million settlement for what the bureau said was false or misleading claims over recycling.

More broadly, there are no specific regulations targeting environmental advertising. The federal government has introduced legislative amendments that, if passed, would require companies to be able to back up their environmental claims with evidence.

Who is being investigated for greenwashing?

Glad you asked! We have a handy article outlining the investigations the Competition Bureau has launched.

Scroll below for stories that highlight the corporations that have come under fire for greenwashing — and sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay informed about all things greenwashing and beyond.

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 50 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?