30 Nov 2023

7 Ways to Spot (and Avoid) Greenwashed Content

Organisations everywhere are feeling pressure, an opportunity, or a mixture of both, to be more sustainable. But what happens when a business creates the illusion of sustainability, without the substance? 

For starters, let’s call it what it is: greenwashing—when a company’s actions make people think it’s doing “more to protect the environment than it really is.” Greenwashing can be accidental or deliberate, but the consequences are the same. Broken trust, lost revenue, and potential legal action, not to mention continued harm to the planet. 

So how do you spot a greenwasher? How can you tell who’s really taking action and who’s merely taking the credit? These seven red flags will help you spot greenwashed content and avoid making the same mistakes in your own. 

1. Lack of Data

How do you gauge the success of your campaign or strategy? It’s all in the metrics. Whether it’s to show progress or defend decisions, data turns claims into credibility. 

And sustainability is no exception. A company that claims “sustainable,” or “good for the planet,” needs the numbers to back it up. For example, what percentage of its packaging is recycled? How many tonnes of CO2 were saved? Without metrics, vague buzzwords are misleading, which constitutes greenwashing. 

So how do you avoid this in your own sustainability marketing? First make sure you’re collecting data. Third party tools like Impact or B Corp’s Impact Assessment are great for taking accurate measurements. Then, add the numbers to your sustainability claims to ensure transparency. This way, your readers can’t misinterpret your messaging, and you’ll steer clear of greenwashing. 

Cube competition collects data on commercial building energy consumption, helping landlords and tenants to save energy and translating energy savings into easy-to-understand metrics and units 

2. Missing experts or thought leaders

Plenty of organisations share content, but the stand-out ones start conversations. Take Apple, where Steve Jobs’ vision still echoes through the corridors. Or Amy Sample Ward’s NTEN, which helps other NGOs increase reach through tech. These leaders don’t speak platitudes, they shift paradigms.

But when these voices are missing, it calls a company’s motivations into question. A lack of experts suggests a lack of expertise, which raises questions about content validity. You’re left wondering, are they really industry innovators, or just riding the green wave? 

Original content with expert insights show who’s the real deal. So use your in-house experts—researchers, SMEs and your CEO—and guest speakers to support your sustainability communications and build authority. 

Identity appointed Faye Priestley to oversee their sustainability transformation, to advocate for  change in the events industry and to scrutinise progress towards net zero.

3. Heavy use of jargon

Closed loop, cradle to cradle, CSR and SDGs. When sustainability content is dense with jargon, it doesn’t enlighten—it exhausts. This plays into the hands of companies that don’t want their sustainability claims scrutinised. After all, it’s hard to find the truth in a maze. 

If the content you’re reading feels like a jargon jungle, it might be greenwashed. So unless you’re writing for a specialised audience, simplify your language and use a conversational tone. Like Big Lemon, a purpose-driven tech provider, which cuts through the noise with its friendly, relatable blog. Clear, confusion-free content like this helps your audience find the truth, keeping you greenwashing-free. 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for example are well structured and defined. The visual content invites, rather than alienates, breaking down the categories into more specific goals and targets, underpinned by data and insights. 

4. Short term efforts over long term commitments

Beware of sustainability latecomers looking for a quick PR boost. Yes, climate urgency means every organisation must take action—the sooner the better. But when a company suddenly starts spouting green rhetoric, you’ve got to wonder what’s behind it? If you’re doing a mental double take, that’s your greenwashing siren sounding. 

Instead, look out for communications that show a commitment to sustainability. Vodafone’s social media account is a great example. The company updated its content pillars in 2020 to include sustainability. And with consistent messaging ever since, has established itself as a sustainability leader in its industry. 

To avoid greenwashing in your content marketing, make sure your strategy reflects your experience in the space. Consistent messaging that builds over time proves your dedication and builds trust. 

Vodafone started communicating sustainability in 2020 and has been consistent ever since. 

5. Unrealised claims

When project scopes change, objectives become moving targets. While in business, shifting goalposts isn’t always a bad thing, in sustainability, it’s the art of illusion.

And it’s not just moving goalposts that leave sustainability goals unmet. It’s also the ones projected so far into the future that business-as-usual practices can continue. You see, genuine content doesn’t just announce targets like “carbon neutral by 2050.” It provides a roadmap showing the steps needed to get there. This means not just aiming for sustainability, but being held accountable for it. 

Giving the appearance of action with no intention of realising it is classic greenwashing. So in your own communications, share plans, not promises. Update your audience on your progress and setbacks so that you can prove you’re taking action now.

Ecosia is the search engine that plants trees with its ad revenue, claims that over 20 million users have helped plant over 150 million trees all over the world. They showcase how those trees help restore landscapes in Social Media progress posts before and after, visualising their impact from past to present. Great way to validate claims.

6. Lack of broader context 

Presenting your best side often works in your favour—think investor pitches or carefully curated influencer feeds. But in sustainability, selective disclosure won’t wash. Because when a company spotlights certain efforts to draw attention from less sustainable ones, it’s “greenlighting.” 

What does greenlighting look like in content marketing? Think organisations that shine a light on their tree planting, but don’t reduce waste. Or energy companies that celebrate their renewable energies, but quietly continue oil and gas exploration. 

Plenty of companies have faced public backlash, broken trust and content removal rulings thanks to greenlighting. So while it’s natural to want to celebrate your sustainability wins, full transparency is key. Make sure your content tells the whole story, not just the highlights. 

“HSBC, Shell, Repsol, Petronas, Deutsche Lufthansa and Etihad all tripped up because…the reality of their high carbon business models was out-of-kilter with the overall impression given…”

Advertising Standards Agency—2023

HSBC was ordered to remove ads that misled readers about their commitment to sustainability. 

7. Lack of transparency

It’s hard to trust anyone when you don’t have the full picture. And in a world where sustainability claims raise eyebrows, you can never be “too transparent.” Because when a company reveals its entire journey—successes, stumbles, and all—it invites you into a true tale, not just polished PR. 

To spot greenwashing, look at how honestly an organisation tells its story. Like Tony’s Chocolonely, which offers a great example of authentic content. It knows it can’t guarantee 100% fair labour in its supply chain, despite trying. So it makes sure its messaging reflects this, giving stakeholders the gift of informed choice. 

In your own content, lay all the cards on the table—the good, the bad, and the work-in-progress. Arm stakeholders with information, so they can choose to be part of your sustainability journey.

Recognised standards improve transparency by encouraging disclosure against universally recognised metrics. 

Avoid greenwashing in your content marketing

People, profit and planet—there’s no doubt that sustainability benefits your triple bottom line. But pressure from stakeholders, changing regulations and ever-evolving language means it’s easy to commit greenwashing, whether you mean to or not. 

But this doesn’t mean hiding away in the shadows. Once you know how to spot greenwashing in content marketing, you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own. 

Remember to:

  1. Provide concrete data: Back up your claims with quantifiable metrics to build trust.
  2. Include expert opinions: Increase credibility with insights from industry experts.
  3. Avoid jargon: Keep your language simple to avoid clouding your messaging.
  4. Commit long-term: Use your content to paint a picture of genuine commitment.
  5. Substantiate claims: Publish a roadmap with steps to achieve your promises.
  6. Provide full context: Give the whole picture, instead of cherry-picking the highlights.
  7. Be transparent: Update and share sustainability progress and setbacks regularly.

Greenwash-free content establishes authority and builds trust. And it keeps your messaging ethical and authentic. So always critically examine sustainability content that comes your way and be sure to avoid misleading claims in your own. 

And if you want help propelling your green marketing strategy, get in touch today