Greenwashing: Why it’s More Harmful than it Seems

By Aislyn Sax, OPIRG McMaster

In general, McMaster’s student population tries to be environmentally orientated. We have SUSTAIN courses, at least 12 ‘Green’ clubs, and OPIRG supports all kinds of specific green projects like Turtles of Cootes, Bleed Free McMaster, and Threadwork.

Related: Check out our current Special Interest Projects and get involved

When students buy things we might try to avoid single-use plastics, bring our own bags, or use refillable Starbucks cups. Some students even go the extra mile and purchase the often slightly more expensive Green or Eco-friendly option of a common product.

This environmental trend isn’t just for eco-products though. With today’s ‘conscientious consumer,’ in mind, every industry from airlines to consumer goods is adopting similar messages.

With this evolving trend, one problem has started thriving and that derails our ethical and green consumer goals, and that is greenwashing.

Greenwashing: Any actions or advertisement that makes a product sound better for the environment than it actually is

Why Greenwashing is Harmful

Greenwashing happens so often and so subtly that it has undermined the very purpose of green marketing in the first place, attracting green consumers. Now people who want to make more environmentally sustainable choices need patience and willingness to inquire, not just the will to be sustainable which isn’t exactly the default consumer.

And… Most people legitimately don’t have the time or know-how to snuff out these green fakers, so they end up buying into companies that don’t support their principles.

These companies can then profit off of empty promises and dirty messaging and gain a competitive advantage over companies with the right intentions.

Related: WeForum goes over Greenwashing 101, including what is being done to stop it

The Bystander Effect

There is a well-known psychological principle that explains the dangers of the kind of massive greenwashing we see today.

The bystander effect was coined to explain how dozens of neighbours allowed a young woman to be stabbed and killed outside her apartment without calling out or doing anything to stop it.

Social science blames two things here: diffusion of responsibility and social influence.

The former can be applied to green messaging. As every company, government, and influencer demonstrates that they are committed to the environment with green messaging and pledges to have net-zero emissions by 2030, everyone individually feels safe of responsibility. Like saving the young woman, we assume that these positive corporate messages mean other people are committed to doing good so the planet must be good, right?

That can be dicey thinking. If every company lets themselves off the hook a little bit thinking everyone else will pick up their slack… well a girl can be murdered with dozens of witnesses.

How Common is Greenwashing?

You might be asking whether this is really a problem. Surely you know when companies are faking it? Besides not every company can be completely lying, some must be doing at least some good, which is better than nothing right?

Why Does Greenwashing Happen: Competition for a Message

Ultimately, greenwashing gets increasingly dangerous the more companies do it, and right now a lot of companies are. There are a lot of reasons for this including:

  • Consumers do want to support socially and environmentally responsible companies, so it’s financially practical
  • There is an echo-chamber of competition where once one company does it, it’s a competitive disadvantage not to follow suit (but the more greenwashing companies the less meaningful green practices become)

But the most important reason, that arguably every other reason relies on, is that there is very little stopping them.

Standards for the Environment are Lacking

Quality assurance standards have been one of the primary ways our rights as consumers are protected. They create the legal and financial incentive for companies to do what they promise. There are many types of these assurances in different areas of production from manufacturing to inspection to promotion.

But environmental standards are often decentralized and/or ambiguous


Have you heard of:

  • The Living Building certification
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
  • The Green Globes certification program

All of these companies and more offer third-party green building certification programs for companies to apply to. And to the average consumer, there is no distinction between them.

How does LEED Gold compare to BREEAM’s distinction of “excellent?”


Greenwashing is inherently involved in the advertisement and promotion of the product. (When companies claim that their processes and products are greener than they are)

But the environmental advertising regulations are not a straightforward read. In Canada, the same marketing guidelines are stretched for all advertising and when you make something that inclusive it tends to by nature be very vague.

I found the most recent June 2008 “Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers” which claims the first and second objectives of the 72 page PDF is to

  1. provide the users of ISO 14021, Environmental labels and declarations — Self‑declared environmental claims (Type II environmental labelling), with a best practice guide to the application of the standard and some practical examples of how the standard could be applied to environmental claims in the Canadian marketplace.
  2. provide assistance to industry and advertisers in complying with certain provisions of the Competition Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, and the Textile Labelling Act, administered and enforced by the Competition Bureau

In summary, the guide tells advertisers to follow the same marketing guidelines for environmental claims. Which the Canadian government helpfully sums up for us:

These guidelines can be found here if you ever have the desire to read them:

What can we Learn From this?

Ultimately, the best power that we have as consumers is knowledge.

So if you really want to support legitimate green companies, some things you can do to arm yourself are:

  • Research any green designations or certifications the company claims and judge for yourself if they could be doing more
  • Realize that Canadian advertisement law can’t or won’t protect your right for accurate information. Again, debunking any seemingly exaggerated claims will be up to you.

This can feel like a lot. Making a simple purchase now requires all this thinking. That’s why going easy on yourself can make the habit last longer.

Instead of checking every product you buy, start with the types of occasional big purchases you make like a new fridge or dishwasher. (Speaking of dishwashers, check out a case of the most blatant and harmful greenwashing companies here).

Or you can plan the process around time intervals. Every month choose one product you’d normally buy to see it’s real environmental impact beyond the idyllic about us page on their website.

We know it’s a tough job, which is why we’ve created a quick toolkit to help you sniff out the fakers. We’re releasing the toolkit in our post next week. To stay updated follow us on Instagram or on Facebook for news on events, articles, and other opportunities related to community advocacy and public interest projects.