Fifty shades of green

Greenwashing clouds consumers' judgement

Kim Sheehan defines greenwashing as “exaggerated and unsupported claims in support of the environment.”

Kim Sheehan defines greenwashing as “exaggerated and unsupported claims in support of the environment.”

Photo By Sage Leehey

To check out the Greenwashing Index, visit

You’re watching reruns of Friends when a commercial comes on promoting a new air freshener plug-in. It brags to have captured the scents of nature and shows beautiful landscapes and exotic animals. And guess what? It’s made with up to 41 percent less plastic. Sold yet?

If you think about this message before purchasing, you may realize that the ad is misleading and vague. The nature images are just that: images. It doesn’t mean the product is natural. And it says up to 41 percent less plastic. What does that really mean?

This is greenwashing. On March 5, Kim Sheehan, advertising professor at the University of Oregon, spoke about it at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Sheehan defined greenwashing as “exaggerated and unsupported claims in support of the environment in advertising and persuasive communications.” She explained that in 1986 Jay Westerveld noticed a misleading message on his hotel bed asking him to reuse towels to help save the environment. In reality, the hotel would benefit more from cost savings than the environment would. This is when he coined the term “greenwashing.”

Sheehan is involved with the website, which allows users to post and rate green ads in order to raise awareness of greenwashing and give feedback to green companies.

Through the Greenwashing Index, Sheehan also discovered that consumers are concerned about images that allude to a product being green. There are guidelines for language set forth in the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guides, but there are no guidelines for images or colors.

The language used is a problem because it can be misleading. Words like “clean” and “green” are used constantly. Sheehan has found that consumers don’t really understand what these words mean, and neither does the FTC, which stated it is unable to define these words for consumers.

A reason behind why greenwashing works today is heuristics, according to Sheehan. Heuristics, in this sense, is a short cut we use when we’re choosing from many different products, especially low-priced products, in order to quicken our decision. Essentially, they’re symbols that allow consumers not to think.

“We want to feel good about ourselves as protectors of the environment, and we want others to see us as protectors of the environment,” Sheehan said. “So we make quick decisions to buy products that look like they’re green.”

A lack of scientific literacy also contributes to greenwashing’s effectiveness. Many people do not understand enough about green products and services to spot messages that are exaggerated, unsupported or untrue, according to Sheehan.

“If something is chemical-free, what is it?” Sheehan asked. “Are they selling something without toxic chemicals? Are they selling something that’s just organic, that’s found in nature, like our good friend arsenic?”

Sheehan encourages advertising agencies to adopt a “good green strategy” when creating persuasive materials for clients to help eliminate greenwashing. She outlined key points to having a strategy like this. Advertisers, according to Sheehan, must be patient because their message can take time to build. They must be both transparent and honest with information about the product. They must encourage clients to think green from the product’s inception, and the most important factor is to listen to consumer’s reactions to their messages.