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  • Published: 11 February 2020

Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review

  • Sebastião Vieira de Freitas Netto 1 ,
  • Marcos Felipe Falcão Sobral   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-4768-2622 2 ,
  • Ana Regina Bezerra Ribeiro 2 &
  • Gleibson Robert da Luz Soares 2  

Environmental Sciences Europe volume  32 , Article number:  19 ( 2020 ) Cite this article

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The aggravation of environmental problems has led companies to seek the development and commercialization of green products. Some companies mislead their stakeholders through a phenomenon called greenwashing.

This paper aims to explore the phenomenon of greenwashing through a systematic literature review in search of its main concepts and typologies in the past 10 years. This research has followed the proceedings of a systematic review of the literature, based on the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA). We identified a major classification of greenwashing: firm-level executional, firm-level claim, product-level executional, and product-level claim.

It was possible to highlight and catalog the types of the phenomenon. A structure based on such type has been observed in the literature.

Since the aggravation of environmental pollution, many companies around the world have been paying more attention to environmental issues [ 20 , 41 , 53 ]. In China, environmental problems such as haze and water pollution have become increasingly prominent [ 21 ].

India is facing environmental issues such as rising air pollution, loss of food security and e-waste disposal pollution [ 16 ]. They have a 1.2 billion population and have generated 2.3 k MtCO2 emissions into the atmosphere in 2017 [ 18 ], classifying themselves as the third most polluter country only behind China and the US, long-time polluter ace.

Due to increasing of environmental problems, and consequently in public awareness, many stakeholders are more aware of environmental consideration [ 7 ]. Over the past decade, stakeholders like investors, consumers, governments, and corporate customers are increasing the pressure on companies to disclose information about their environmental performance [ 25 , 30 ] and for environmental-friendly products [ 21 ].

According to Vollero et al. [ 49 ], companies from the energy sector experiences increasing pressure from stakeholders to produce sustainable products and clean energy. Environmental awareness has grown on society [ 1 , 39 , 52 ], and especially on consumers [ 1 ], they are eager for environmental-friendly products [ 6 , 9 ].

The Nielsen Media Research [ 33 ] presented that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. When these customers perceive firms as socially responsible, they may be more willing to buy the products from these firms at a higher price [ 19 , 21 ].

In order to respond to these issues, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is gaining importance among business leaders [ 39 ]. CSR is defined as “a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” [ 13 ].

To reach the integration of social and environmental concerns in business operations companies must be sustainable and socially responsible [ 1 ], not only economically. They have to aim the three bottom lines: economic, environmental and social performance or people, planet and profit [ 12 ].

Sustainable development is defined by “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [ 51 ]. The growing demand “drives firms to develop green marketing strategies to show consumers their good corporate image and social responsibility” ([ 53 ], p. 740).

Since reported by Delmas and Burbano [ 11 ], the green market is proliferating. Consumer, capital markets, products, services, and firms have been expanding. As there is an increase in green markets, it is followed by the phenomenon of greenwashing [ 28 ]. The phenomenon is defined as “the intersection of two firm behaviours: poor environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance” ([ 11 ], p. 65).

There are many different definitions of greenwashing, in various perspectives. This review attends to search the recent literature to identify the different definitions of greenwashing and its forms. The primary purpose of this article is to analyze the different typologies and characteristics of greenwashing. In order to achieve the objective, we sought to systematically review the last 10 years in the literature. A systematic literature review has been conducted in search of the phenomenon definitions and related concepts; and its characteristics and typologies.

Stakeholders and society in general, demands transparency in disclosing information about the environmental impact of companies activities, this communication must be dynamic, through different channels and with the purpose of educating awareness [ 1 ]. The Federal Trade Commission ([ 14 ], p. 62122) instructs to “use clear and prominent qualifying language to convey that a general environmental claim refers only to a specific and limited environmental benefit(s)”.

The advent of Web 2.0 brings new social media tools, and stakeholders can exercise new forms of interacting and sharing information through the Internet. Online corporate pages or blogs, wiki and petitions websites, and particularly social networks like Twitter and Facebook are redefining the interactions and communications between companies and their stakeholders [ 17 ].

Some companies invest in green marketing communications, to be perceived as eco-friendly and socially engaged. They advertise and CSR to achieve better purchase intentions and brand attitudes [ 34 ]. However, the reality behind corporate environmentalism can be disappointing, TerraChoice [ 48 ] reported that 95% of products claiming to be green in Canada and the USA committed at least one of the “sins of greenwashing”, from the sin of the hidden trade-off to the sin of worshiping false labels.

Greenwashing was first accused in 1986 by activist Jay Westerveld, when hotels begin asking guests to reuse towels, claiming that it was a company water conservation strategy, although, did not have any environmental actions with more significant environmental impact issues [ 38 ].

According to advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather, greenwashing practices are growing in the last decades to epidemic proportions [ 24 ]. With the increase of green markets, followed by greenwashing, a trust problem has emerged since customers have difficulties in identifying a true green claim [ 34 ].

Green skepticism has grown with greenwashing, and it would obstruct green marketing [ 8 ]. Real green claims would suffer from greater skepticism since it is hard for customers to differentiate the reliability of green marketing initiatives. TerraChoice [ 48 ] has released a study to help customers identify greenwashing practices by companies with the seven sins of greenwashing.

In developed countries that have more significant environmental awareness, the regulation from the authorities is in a higher level of development compared to developing countries, in the US regulation of greenwashing is extremely limited with uncertain regulation enforcement [ 11 ]. In response to such non-binding regulatory guidelines, scholars, activists and environmentalists have argued that it inadequately protects consumers from the harmful effects of the phenomenon of greenwashing [ 15 ].

There are none or poor green regulation in developing countries governments even though the mass population does have any or poor concerns about environmental care. The practice of recycling by waste sorting and collection that seems to be a regular thing to do by the millennials in developed countries [ 35 ], on the other side in emerging countries, it is a privilege to have it.

This paper is structured as follows, in Methods we describe the methodological procedures, research questions, and search strategy. The next topic was presented the results followed by the discussion. The last topic is the conclusions.

This research has followed the proceedings of a systematic review of the literature, based on the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA). PRISMA is not a quality assessment mechanism, although it may be useful for critical appraisal by reviewers and editors. Its objective is to help authors to improve the reporting of systematic reviews and meta-analyses [ 40 ].

A protocol has been developed to specify the carefully planning proceedings and eligibility criteria, to select and identify the data of documents. According to Shamseer et al. [ 44 ], a protocol is an essential component of a systematic review, in the protocol are specified the pre-defined eligibility criteria and methodological approach, which ensures the consistency by the review team, accountability, research integrity and transparency.

Research questions

RQ 1: Which are the main definitions of Greenwashing and their evolution over the past 10 years?

RQ 2: Which are the characteristics and forms of Greenwashing?

Search strategy

All content and papers selected for each phase of the review were available for all the researchers in the cloud, the data sheets were created using a document cloud base application that enables collaboration from different persons remotely located. This strategy enabled better control and enhanced standardization of the process of the systematic review.

With the purpose of identifying and recovering the smallest possible number of publications, the research incorporates a search strategy. The resources used to searches are Web of Science ( http://www.webofscience.com ); and Scopus ( http://www.scopus.com ).

Scopus search engine offers a better tool in terms of detailed string than Web of Science. The search string from Scopus can be developed with a much-specified search query. When the search strings were applied, 84 publications were identified from Scopus and 179 from Web of Science, representing a total of 263 publications considering both engines.

The keywords applied in the search engines were: “greenwashing”, “greenwash” and “greenwasher”. Table  1 shows the specific search filters used on both Scopus and Web of Science databases.

Data selection

The data selection was performed in two steps: the first stage involved a Title and Abstract analyses; and the second stage involved an Introduction and Conclusion analyses.

In the first stage, an initial selection was performed on documents that reasonably satisfied the selection criteria based on the titles and abstracts reading. The process was handled in pairs to reduce possible bias and the researchers worked individually on the inclusion or exclusion of the documents and then compared the spreadsheets. When a divergence occurred and a consensus was not possible a third researcher was consulted. If the divergence still remained, the document was included in the list.

In the second stage, the selection was performed on documents that fairly satisfied selection criteria based on the introductions and conclusions reading. Similar to the first stage, the process was also managed in pairs with the same strategy in case of divergencies described in the first stage.

Data extraction and quality assessment

In the extraction stage, all the selected documents were assessed concerning the methodological quality, yet the results were not used to limit the selection.

We extracted 263 articles from Scopus and Web of Science, which eliminated all those present in both bases. Then, the title and abstract were read, resulting in 149 articles. Finally, the introduction and conclusion were read, leaving 67 documents. After the complete reading, 42 articles completely met the review protocol as presented in Fig.  1 .

figure 1

Results achieved on each stage at the systematic review process

Table  2 reports the publication names of the journals that were included in the review. The journal that published most of the studies is “Journal of Business Ethics”, followed by “BioTechnology: An Indian Journal”, “Journal of Advertising”, “Journal of Business and Technical Communication”, and “Journal of Cleaner Production”.

The 67 documents included in the review were published in 50 different journals. There is a strong presence of publications from “Journal of Business Ethics” with 11 selected documents. This journal is devoted to a wide variety of methodological and disciplinary perspectives related to ethical issues in business.

There is a majority of Business and Management journals related to Environment and Sustainability issues in the selected papers. Others journals brought the greenwashing phenomenon in the fields of Advertising and Communications, Economics, Sociology and Ethics, Production Engineering, Marketing, Accounting, Tourism, Education and others. These results show the multidisciplinary characteristic of the phenomenon.

The selection included only papers in the period of 2009–2018, but no documents from 2009 and 2010 were included in this research. Observing Fig.  2 there is a relevant increase in the number of studies over time, with a peak in 2017. This trend suggests that there is an increasing interest for the phenomenon of greenwashing in the literature.

figure 2

Evolution of the number of reviewed documents over time

Due to the objective of this paper, documents included in the review have been examined with precise attention to two main topics: definitions of greenwashing and related concepts; and the phenomenon characteristics and typology. 67 documents provided insights on definitions of greenwashing and related concepts. From the 67 selected documents, 17 also provided insights on the phenomenon characteristics and typology.

The term Greenwashing was coined first in 1986, by an environmentalist Jay Westervelt. He published an essay on the hospitality industry about their practices to promote towel reuse [ 20 , 52 ].

Several dictionaries define the phenomenon of greenwashing, Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English [ 31 ] defines greenwash as “practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savoury activities”. In 1999 the term was added to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary [ 36 ], that defines it as: “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., but perceived as being unfounded or intentionally misleading”.

According to Lyon and Montgomery [ 27 ], there is no rigid definition of greenwashing due to its multifaceted nature. Above we describe the different main approaches we found in defining the phenomenon of greenwashing.

Greenwashing as selective disclosure

TerraChoice [ 48 ] defines greenwashing as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance”.

Delmas and Burbano ([ 11 ], p. 67) define as “poor environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance”. Baum ([ 2 ], p. 424) considers greenwashing “the act of disseminating disinformation to consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”.

Tateishi ([ 47 ], p. 3) summarizes greenwashing as “communication that misleads people regarding environmental performance/benefits by disclosing negative information and disseminating positive information about an organization, service, or product”.

All of these authors describe the phenomenon as two main behaviors simultaneously: retain the disclosure of negative information related to the company’s environmental performance and expose positive information regarding its environmental performance. This two-folded behavior can be named as selective disclosure.

We found several articles considering greenwashing a type of selective disclosure. Lyon and Maxwell [ 26 ] presented the first economic analysis of greenwash, with specific persuasion game approach from Milgrom and Roberts [ 32 ]. Lyon and Maxwell ([ 26 ], p. 9) consider selective disclosure a form of greenwashing and define the phenomenon as “selective disclosure of positive information about a company’s environmental or social performance, without full disclosure of negative information on these dimensions, so as to create an overly positive corporate image”.

Lyon and Maxwell [ 26 ] assume social and environmental dimensions on their work, others consider only the environmental dimension, considering the social dimension a different phenomenon.

Marquis et al. ([ 30 ], p. 483) define selective disclosure as “a symbolic strategy whereby firms seek to gain or maintain legitimacy by disproportionately revealing beneficial or relatively benign performance indicators to obscure their less impressive overall performance”.

Greenwashing as decoupling

Some authors associate greenwashing to a decoupling behavior. Siano et al. ([ 45 ], p. 27) relate greenwashing with symbolic actions, “which tend to deflect attention to minor issues or lead to create ‘green talk’ through statements aimed at satisfying stakeholder requirements in terms of sustainability but without any concrete action”.

Walker and Wan [ 50 ] defines greenwashing as the gap between “symbolic” and “substantive” corporate social actions (CSA). Companies that have a negative CSR performance and at the same time apply a positive communication about their CSR performance.

As defined by Guo et al. ([ 22 ], p. 1828) greenwashing is essentially decoupling behaviours that are symbolic environmental protection behaviours with no environmental protection behaviour or failure to fulfil environmental protection commitments, to alleviate the external public pressures and uncertainties and to avoid the conflict with external constituents. The authors reinforce that these decoupling behaviors of greenwashing brands are to maintain corporate legitimacy.

Signaling and corporate legitimacy theory

The phenomenon of greenwashing was also related to corporate legitimacy theory in the literature. It can be distinguished in three types of corporate legitimacy: cognitive legitimacy, pragmatic legitimacy and moral legitimacy. According to Seele and Gatti [ 43 ], greenwashing occurs in the light of pragmatic legitimacy.

“Cognitive legitimacy is based on the shared taken-for-granted assumptions of an organization’s societal environment. Moral legitimacy relies on moral judgments about the organization and its behaviour…“ ([ 43 ], p. 242). And pragmatic legitimacy is “the result of self-interested calculations of the organization’s key stakeholders, and it is based on stakeholder’s perceptions of their personal benefit deriving from corporate activities and communication.” ([ 43 ], p. 242).

Guo et al. [ 22 ] explain that when companies fail to reach their green goals, the decoupling behaviors can reduce cognitive legitimacy (take-for grandness of constituents), moral legitimacy (positive green evaluation), and pragmatic legitimacy (benefiting constituents).

Which are the characteristics and forms of greenwashing?

According to Delmas and Burbano [ 11 ] greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of an organization (firm-level) or the environmental benefits of a product or service (product/service-level). An example of firm-level greenwashing is the “Ecomagination” campaign from General Electric which advertised the organization’s environmental practices while at the same time lobbied to fight new clean air EPA requirements [ 11 ]. An example of product/service-level greenwashing is the Energy Star mis-certified refrigerators from LG, an eco-label of energy efficiency, which was found that 10 models of LG’s refrigerators were not energy efficient to be certified [ 11 ].

We found two different major classifications of greenwashing: Claim greenwashing and Executional greenwashing. The studies on the literature concentrate on product/service-level claim greenwashing, while executional greenwashing was found only on two articles in this revision. Figure  3 shows the main classifications in the phenomenon of greenwashing.

figure 3

Major classifications of greenwashing

Claim greenwashing

The majority of research to date has focused on product/service-level claim greenwashing, which uses textual arguments that explicitly or implicitly refer to the ecological benefits of a product or service to create a misleading environmental claim.

Parguel et al. [ 37 ], cited a study from 1991 in which Kangun, Carlson and Grove distinguished three categories of greenwashed advertising: (1) those employing false claims; (2) those omitting important information that could help evaluate the claim sincerity, and (3) those employing vague or ambiguous term, which could be summed up as lying, lying by omission or lying through lack of clarity.

From Tateishi [ 47 ] and Baum [ 2 ] we found cited a study conducted by Carlson et al. [ 5 ] that developed two typologies of green claims: (1) claim type; and (2) claim deceptiveness. Claim type involves five typological categories: (a) product orientation—claims centring on the ecological attribute of a product; (b) process orientation—claims centring on the ecological high performance of a production process technique, and/or an ecological disposal method; (c) image orientation—claims centring on enhancing the eco-friendly image of an organization, like claims that associates an organization with an environmental cause or activity which there is elevated public support; (d) environmental fact—claims that involves an independent statement that is ostensibly factual in nature from an organization about the environment at large, or its condition; and (e) combination—claims having two or more of the categories above [ 2 , 47 ]. The types of claims are presented in Fig.  4 .

figure 4

Types of claims [ 5 ]

These claim types presented above can be classified in a second typology, claim deceptiveness, that also involves five typological categories: (a) vague/ambiguous—claims that are overly vague, ambiguous, too broad, and/or lacking a clear definition; (b) omission—claims missing the necessary information to evaluate its validity; (c) false/outright lie—claims that are inaccurate or a fabrication; (d) combination—claims having two or more of the categories above; and (e) acceptable—claims that do not contain a deceptive feature [ 47 ]. The claims are presented in Fig.  5 .

figure 5

Claim deceptiveness [ 5 ]

An environmental marketing firm called TerraChoice [ 48 ] has created a classification called “the seven sins of greenwashing”. The classification has been cited in several articles, Scanlan [ 42 ] cited that it includes various fibs, half-truths, vagueness and other forms of trickery. Markham et al. [ 29 ] described that the seven sins assist more precisely in detecting instances of firm-based or product-based greenwashing.

Baum [ 2 ] cited that the seven sins of greenwashing can indicate the main ways in which a company can mislead consumers with environmental claims and uses these seven sins as a framework for their advertising analysis. According to Antunes et al. [ 1 ], the objective of the seven sins is to discourage companies to apply these green marketing strategies by giving the consumers information they need to be cautious in their purchase decisions.

Delmas and Burbano [ 11 ] explain that the TerraChoice Group’s seven sins are all product-level greenwashing. We have found quotes on 10 articles outlining the seven sins of greenwashing that are described below [ 48 ]:

The sin of the hidden trade-off: a claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally preferable just because it comes from a sustainably harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important [ 48 ]. Other examples are energy, utilities and gasoline corporations that advertise about the benefits of new sources of energy while some are drilling into unexplored areas to source oil and thus destroying natural habitats and losing biodiversity, disguising the imbued hidden tradeoff [ 2 ].

The sin of no proof: an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence [ 48 ]. In short terms, if a corporation makes a claim that includes some kind of percentage or statistics info that are not verified with something that could prove it, like a fine-print text or a URL to lead to more information, the claim is considered as no proof [ 2 ].

The sin of vagueness: a claim that is poorly defined or too broad, a claim lacking in specifics that its real meaning is inclined to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example of this sin. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’ [ 48 ]. Other examples are “Non-toxic” because everything is toxic in certain dosages; “Green”, “Environmentally friendly”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Eco-conscious” are also vague because without elaboration they are meaningless [ 2 ].

The sin of worshipping false labels: a product that, through a false suggestion or certification-like image, mislead consumers into thinking that it has been through a legitimate green certification process. An example is a paper towel whose packaging has a certification-like image that makes a claim that the product “fights global warming” [ 48 ]. Other examples include green jargon such as “eco-safe” and “eco-preferred” [ 2 ].

The sin of irrelevance: an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law [ 48 ].

The sin of lesser of two evils: a claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle [ 48 ].

The sin of fibbing: environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered [ 48 ].

Scanlan [ 42 ] conducted a research in the oil gas industry (OGI) communication on hydraulic fracking and proposed new sins related to the conceptualization of greenwashing. The OGI masks harm done and other risks with greenwashing in the form of new sins he elaborated build on TerraChoice [ 48 ]: (8) false hopes; (9) fearmongering; (10) broken promises; (11) injustice; (12) hazardous consequences; and (13) profits over people and the environment [ 42 ].

The sin of false hopes: a claim that reinforces a false hope. The OGI hydraulic fracking method has an enormous negative impact on the environment, critics argue that ecological modernization is not possible and believing otherwise is harmful to the environment [ 42 ].

The sin of fearmongering: claims that fabricate insecurity related to not “buying in” on an organization practice, like OGI hydraulic fracking [ 42 ]. Scanlan ([ 42 ], p. 16) explains that “shifting the scale of fear and seizing opportunities from instability and uncertainty borne out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global war on terror, and volatile fuel costs, alter the public perception of risk”.

The sin of broken promises: claims promising that fracking will lift up poor, rural communities with riches from mineral rights and economic development, but when evidence shows the contrary, communities are left with irreversible impacts ([ 46 ] apud [ 42 ]). Scanlan [ 42 ] describes that greenwashing obscures who loses regarding the negative impacts of fracking and OGI profits from exploiting the hopes and trust of the citizenry.

The sin of injustice: according to Scanlan [ 42 ] the environmental communication examined in his research does not speak directly to communities most affected by fracking, it focuses on a segment of the population that benefits from fracking but do not suffer its consequences.

The sin of hazardous consequences: greenwashing hides the reality of inequality and distracts the public from the dangers of risk other experience, Scanlan [ 42 ] includes another sin in reference to harm done from hazardous consequences.

The sin of profits over people and the environment: to profit over people and the environment is what Scanlan [ 42 ] describes as potentially the greatest greenwashing sin of all.

“The delivery of false hopes and resulting broken promises, fearmongering that reorients public understanding of risk and the hazardous consequences of fracking, environmental injustice, and the pursuit of profits over people and the environment have serious impacts on the planet” ([ 42 ], p. 20).

Contreras-Pacheco and Claasen [ 10 ] brought five firm-level greenwashing: (1) dirty business; (2) ad bluster; (3) political spin; (4) it is the law, stupid! [ 4 ]. Fifth firm-level greenwashing form: (5) fuzzy reporting [ 3 ].

Dirty business: belonging to an inherently unsustainable business, but promoting sustainable practices or products that are not representative either for the business or the society.

Ad bluster: diverting attention from sustainable issues, through the use of advertising. It is used to exaggerate achievements or present alternative programs that are not related to the main sustainability concern.

Political spin: influencing regulations or governments in order to obtain benefits that affect sustainability. It is common to notice that these spins are “justified” due to companies character of large taxpayers or employers.

It’s the law, stupid!: proclaiming sustainability accomplishments or commitments that are already required by existing laws or regulations.

Fuzzy reporting: taking advantage of sustainability reports and their nature of one-way communication channel, in order to twist the truth or project a positive image in terms of CSR corporate practices.

Executional greenwashing

Parguel et al. [ 37 ] described a new form of greenwashing that the authors called ‘Executional Greenwashing’. This strategy of greenwashing does not use any type of claim that was described before, but it suggests nature-evoking elements such as images using colors (e.g., green, blue) or sounds (e.g., sea, birds). Backgrounds representing natural landscapes (e.g., mountains, forests, oceans) or pictures of endangered animal species (e.g., pandas, dolphins) or renewable sources of energy (e.g., wind, waterfalls) are examples of executional nature-evoking elements [ 37 ]. The research addressed to this gap in the literature by documenting the executional greenwashing effect based on advertising execution knowledge.

These nature-evoking elements, intentionally or not, may induce false perceptions of the brand’s greenness. According to Hartmann and Apaolaza-Ibáñez ([ 23 ], apud Parguel et al. [ 37 ], p. 2) these elements can “trigger ecological inferences subtly by activating implicit references to nature through nature imagery”.

Parguel et al. [ 37 ] conducted a research that presented empirical evidence of the misleading effect of these nature-evoking elements named ‘executional greenwashing effect’ and moderator factors that may reduce its impact. The research consisted of a web survey considering two types of consumers: (a) non-expert consumers and (b) expert consumers.

The empirical results showed that the presence of advertising executional elements evoking-nature only generates higher perceptions of the brand’s greenness among non-expert consumers, expert consumers were not significantly affected.

In this paper, we have discussed the main concepts of greenwashing and its main types that we found present in the literature. Due to its multidisciplinary characteristic, no general definition of greenwashing is accepted to recent day. The phenomenon has been discussed by researchers from several areas such as Business, Communication, Economy, Production Engineering, Social Sciences, Environmental Management and Law.

Some scholars consider only environmental issues when talking about greenwashing, distinguishing it with the term bluewashing, which stands for social issues. Others researchers do not distinguish and consider greenwashing a social and environmental phenomenon.

We can see that greenwashing can be perceived and accused by the observer in several different ways. From product-level claims with environmental labeling to firm-level nature-evoked executional elements in sustainability reports, the phenomenon may be classified in a complex variety of options.

This multifaceted amount of forms in which greenwashing has been observed offers difficulty for consumers to identify the phenomenon manifestations. Even among consumers considered expert consumers, well informed about greenwashing and the market in question, it is a challenge to identify greenwashing. In consumers considered regular, who do not know or have limited information about the phenomenon, the accusation process is even more complicated.

The main definitions of greenwashing were explored in the literature. Most researchers are based on the definitions of the Oxford English Dictionary [ 36 ] and TerraChoice [ 48 ]. In these definitions, the phenomenon is seen as a deliberate corporate action with the presence of misleading elements, focused on the deception of stakeholders.

As greenwashing was first accused in 1986 by Jay Westerveld [ 38 ], an activist who noticed an organizational communication with a misleading trait, the element of accusation is key in the process. Seele and Gatti [ 43 ] were the only researchers who observed the phenomenon by adding the accusation as a key element in the process, a charge or claim from a third party that someone has done something illegal or wrong. Without the accusation element, the definition of the phenomenon is incomplete.

Aiming to reach the first objective, this review exposed the main definitions of greenwashing present in the literature. These definitions were presented in different conceptual perspectives, due to the multidisciplinary characteristic of the object of study. A limitation of the work found in its development was the keywords used in the search strings. Terms like ‘CSR-Wash’, ‘Decoupling’ and ‘Selective Disclosure’ may contribute to the number of articles selected in the systematic review.

To achieve the second objective, a categorization of the phenomenon was developed. This classification of greenwashing is the main academic contribution of the study, which can provide a theoretical basis for the accusatory element of the phenomenon.

In this emerging and growing green market, there are also organizations that are really green, the developed classification of greenwashing can also help to avoid unsubstantiated accusations and protect these genuine green companies.

For future research, we recommend developing procedures to measure the greenwashing in companies. The multicriteria modeling may be adequate by addressing the sorting or portfolio approach.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.


Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

United States of America

Web of Science Database

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Corporate social responsibility

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Grey zone in – greenwash out. A review of greenwashing research and implications for the voluntary-mandatory transition of CSR

  • Lucia Gatti 1 ,
  • Peter Seele 2 &
  • Lars Rademacher 3  

International Journal of Corporate Social Responsibility volume  4 , Article number:  6 ( 2019 ) Cite this article

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As public concern over greenwashing has grown in the last two decades, academic research has increased correspondingly, and there is now a substantial body of research addressing issues related to greenwashing. In this paper, we therefore review and analyze greenwashing research, to provide an evaluation of trends and progress in the field and a synthesis of the empirical and conceptual results presented in existing studies.

Our main finding leading to our theory contribution is the criticism raised in greenwashing research that the entirely voluntary CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) approach facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. The voluntary idea of CSR is still prevalent in the CSR literature and appears to be a grey-zone that creates space for misleading ‘green’ communication.

Consequently, we propose that greenwashing could be better prevented with a combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects. The new paradigm should promote creative and effective corporate CSR initiatives, while at the same time design the limits and the rules for their accomplishments and communication, as firms would risk breaching legislation when overstretching CSR messages.


Over the last decades, companies’ instrumental use of green and social claims has become a central topic in the public debate about corporate social responsibility (CSR). In this context, an increasing number of organizations have been accused of “not walking the talk,” which means their CSR claims on environmental or social issues have not been followed or supported by actual corporate activities (Walker & Wan, 2012 ). Such divergence between socially responsible communication and practices is commonly known as greenwashing .

Three decades after the conceptualization of the term “greenwashing,” the practice has grown enormously (Walker & Wan, 2012 ) and is now more sophisticated (Theguardian, 2016 ).

According to Furlow ( 2010 ), the proliferation of environmental disinformation has become so common and is of such a concern, that media discourse on greenwashing has parallel increased. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace or TerraChoice, assume today the roles of market monitors or “watchdogs.” In addition, the press expresses a growing concern about causes and consequences of greenwashing (Du, 2015 ). As a result, consumers are increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of corporate environmental claims (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013 ).

As the public concern over greenwashing has drastically grown in the last two decades, academic research has increased correspondingly, and there is now a substantial body of literature addressing issues related to greenwashing. Indeed, more than 1.315 scholarly articles are currently Footnote 1 mentioning the term “greenwashing” or “greenwash”.

Because of the centrality and actuality of the topic in both the public and academic CSR debate, a review of the literature is needed to understand how scholars have conceptualized and discussed the phenomenon. Indeed, different and sometimes contradictory definitions have thus far been provided and more research is needed to categorize the variety of greenwashing discussed in literature as well as its implications and consequences for business and society (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015 ; Seele & Gatti, 2017 ). To our knowledge, only one article has reviewed the academic debate around greenwashing. By focusing on the means and ends of greenwashing, the Lyon and Montgomery’s ( 2015 ) paper offers valid insights and directions for future research. However, their detailed analysis of the literature needs to be updated, given the fact that it stops in 2013 with a total number of 34 papers. Therefore, by including more than twice as many papers compared to Lyon and Montgomery’s literature review on greenwashing, we aim to expand their analysis in order to identify and discuss new issues in the fields and to provide a structured summary of the empirical and conceptual results presented in existing studies.

Our main finding leading to our theory contribution is the criticism raised in greenwashing literature that a totally voluntary and unregulated CSR approach facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. Indeed, current predominant voluntary approaches create space for grey zones allowing for misleading communications. However, also an exclusive mandatory approach may favor the establishment of grey zones where companies look for ways around the rules. This is particularly true in the today’s interconnected and globalized world, where globalization makes self-organizing processes necessary to solve the deficit in regulation (Scherer et al. 2006 ).

Building on the discussion about the legality of greenwashing, our paper links to and advanced the debate about the voluntary versus mandatory nature of CSR through the lens of greenwashing scholars, thereby providing insights into a burgeoning paradigm shift towards an integration of the voluntary and mandatory perspectives in the application of CSR and corporate CSR reporting and communication.

The paper suggests that greenwashing could be better prevented with a combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects designed to promote CSR and regulate its application and communication, (which is currently in the process of being developed in several countries).

The paper proceeds as follows: we summarize the methodology applied to select and analyze the academic articles about greenwashing. In sections 3 and 4 we present the main results of our quantitative and qualitative analysis. We then discuss these results to highlight implications and contributions of the greenwashing literature, as well as trends and progress in the field. In the last section, we finally present the main insights of the paper, particularly the theoretical contribution suggesting a reduction of grey zones and an increase in clarity and credibility, to limit the ‘temptation’ to create misleading green messages, which could open the door to accusations of greenwashing.

Method of the systematic literature review

To identify trends and progress in the field and provide a synthesis of the main issues discussed in literature, we conducted an extensive review articles of the literature. Indeed, review articles play a role in discovering critical issues relevant to the topic and in synthesizing the main trends and perspectives discussed as well as the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used (Randolph, 2009 ).

As Randolph ( 2009 ) suggested, when conducting a systematic and reliable literature review, the data collection process should begin with an electronic search of academic databases and the Internet. To identify the academic literature on greenwashing, we therefore employed keyword searches using the ABI/Inform Global database, considered the most comprehensive source of information on business research (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015 ), and Google Scholar. For the ABI/Inform database, we first began with a general search to assess the dimension of literature citing the term greenwashing. Therefore, we applied the keywords “greenwash” or “greenwashing” to all the fields (including the title, abstract, keywords and full text of articles) and selected English articles published in scholarly journals. A total number of 1.273 articles in the period from 1995 to 2018 were retrieved from this search. Footnote 2 Among the different journals publishing articles about greenwashing, the Journal of Business Ethics represents the top journal in terms of published articles (212 papers), followed by the Journal of Cleaner Production (97), and the Social Responsibility Journal (29). Table  1 reports the list of journals publishing more than 10 articles citing “greenwashing” or “greenwash” to identifying the top journal list of greenwashing research.

In order to identify articles with a clear focus on the topic, as opposed to those merely citing the term, we restricted our search to papers that mention the search terms in the title or abstract. This selection process yielded 136 scholarly articles. After a content review, 62 articles were excluded from the analysis. Although they mentioned greenwashing in their title and/or abstract, greenwashing did not represent a central construct or variable in these articles, or they presented an English title and abstract, but the article content was not in English.

The same keyword searches were applied to the Google Scholar search engine to detect relevant articles, which were not retrieved by the ABI/Inform search. Twenty scholarly articles not included in the ABI/Inform list were identified and added to our sample. The other articles returned by the Google Scholar search matched the previous sample or comprised non-academic papers. The final list, comprising 94 academic papers, Footnote 3 was updated and finalized on December, 2018.

Quantitative data analysis

To assess the status and development of the academic literature on greenwashing, we first categorized the 94 academic articles according to a set of variables: year of publication, type of research (empirical research, conceptual paper, literature review), methodological approaches (qualitative, quantitative, mixed method), methodological techniques (case study, content analysis, model development, analysis of secondary data, survey research method, experimental research method, focus group, visual sociology technique), scope of research (accounting, business ethics, corporate communication, economics, finance, law, management, marketing, political economics), focus of research (environmental issues, social issues, environmental and social issues, ethical issues), and theoretical framework (instrumental, political, ethical, integrative).

The coding process involved two different coders categorizing the collected articles separately. For all the variables mentioned above, we calculated the intercoder reliability. Among the various indices proposed in the literature, we employed Cohen’s kappa (k), which is generally considered a valid measure to assess the level of agreement among coders in a content analysis. While there is no objective standard indicating acceptable levels of intercoder agreement for k, Landis and Koch ( 1977 ) suggest that values lower than 0.20 indicate slight or no agreement, values between 0.21 and 0.40 correspond to a moderate level of agreement, values between 0.61 to 0.80 indicate a substantial agreement, while values higher 0.81 correspond to an almost perfect agreement. The test of the intercoder agreement for k was performed for the main variables considered in the study. The k was significantly different from zero (at the 0.05 level) with coefficients between 0.67 to 1.00, thus indicating an acceptable level of agreement. The detailed of the tests and their results are reported in Appendix.

The analysis of the years of publication reveals that, in general, publications on greenwashing are increasing in number. Before 2007 there were only one or two publications on the topic per year. Since the 2008 they continue to increase, reaching 13 publications in 2018. This seems to be a sign of the current productive status of greenwashing research and supports the idea that the diffusion of greenwashing practices in business fields has been accompanied by a development of related literature.

In relation to the “type of research,” each paper was classified as either “conceptual,” “empirical” or “literature review.” Following Lyon and Montgomery ( 2015 ), the conceptual category included those papers discussing philosophical issues, offering frameworks or models for classifying greenwashing related topics, or those developing theories and hypotheses about greenwashing. Empirical papers included both qualitative and quantitative research studies, and they were analyzed in depth to identify the methodological approach and technique used in each study.

As previously mentioned, we only found one literature review revising greenwashing research, which suggests the necessity of deeper analysis of the literature to see how research about the topic is evolving. We also identified one book review. Among the other articles, 32 studies were categorized as conceptual. The remaining 60 articles comprised empirical papers. While conceptual studies show uniform distribution across the publication time frame (1997–2016), empirical papers seem to increase consistently after 2003.

Empirical research about greenwashing was characterized by both qualitative and quantitative methods and by a number of different techniques. In particular, among the 60 empirical papers, 17 studies were based on a qualitative approach, 37 papers on a quantitative approach, while the remaining 10 studies employed a mixed method. Among the different methodological techniques used by greenwashing scholars, the case study method, the experimental research method, and the survey research method were the most widely employed. Figure 1 summarizes the specific techniques of the empirical studies analyzed in our review.

figure 1

Methodological techniques in greenwashing empirical research

Table  2 reports the analysis of the scope of research of the 94 articles. The majority of papers (78.7%) discussed greenwashing in the fields of corporate communication, marketing, and management. It is particularly interesting to note that 12.8% of articles are focused on law and legislation.

Qualitative data analysis

To better understand how scholars have conceptualized and discussed the phenomenon so far, we also conducted a qualitative content analysis as established in CSR and business ethics research (Seele & Lock, 2015 , Lock & Seele, 2016 ). The main purpose of this analysis was to assess the core findings of empirical and conceptual research. In Table 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 and 8 we present the synthesis of our analysis. Therefore, the following tables summarize the main results of greenwashing research and offer a useful instrument for both academics and practitioners to understand what has been discovered so far, and the main trends and progresses in the fields. A more profound reflection on the findings of greenwashing literature is presented in the discussion section.

Discussion and contribution

Our content analysis resulted in the identification of three different themes highly debated in the literature: The meaning of greenwashing, its main consequences, and the recent conceptualization of CSR as a form of regulation to prevent greenwashing practices.

The meaning of greenwashing

Following Lyon and Montgomery ( 2015 ), more research is needed to acknowledge the variety of forms and mechanisms related to greenwashing to better understand its meaning. We therefore revise the different definitions presented in literature to identify its main characteristics and the underlying mechanisms of the phenomena.

As claimed by Seele and Gatti ( 2017 ), although the literature on greenwashing is expanding, there is not a universally accepted definition of the term, and the concept itself is ambiguously defined. For example, although the majority of scholars consider greenwashing as exclusively dealing with environmental issues (61.6% of the selected articles), other researchers maintain that greenwashing is also related to social issues (38.0% of articles).

Another distinction among greenwashing definitions provided in the academic literature relates to the degree of falsehood implied in the message. Some academics consider greenwashing as false advertising or misleading claims (e.g. Lane, 2010 , 2013 ; Mills, 2009 ). According to a second group of scholars, greenwashing also includes claims that are neither substantiated by a credible third-party certification nor by evidence (e.g. Alves, 2009 ; Bazillier & Vauday, 2013 ). Other researchers note that greenwashing is not typically false communication but rather it is the selective disclosure of positive information about a company’s environmental or social issues without full disclosure of negative information on these aspects (e.g. Kim & Lyon, 2011 ; Lyon & Maxwell, 2006 , 2011 ; Marquis & Toffel, 2011 ; Mitchell & Ramey, 2011 ). According to this view, greenwashing is understood as the obscuration of potentially harmful information by an organization (Mitchell & Ramey, 2011 ). Therefore, following the selective view, greenwashing is not the same as having a poor record on environmental performance because “a firm can have a poor record without presenting any positive information about itself, or can have a relatively good record while simultaneously promoting its positive actions publicly and failing to discuss its (few) negative environmental impacts” (Lyon & Maxwell, 2006 , p.3).

Linder ( 2010 ) distinguishes between two major categories of greenwashing definitions: 1) definitions focused on the attributes of the objects, and 2) definitions focused on the process behind the object. In the object attribute view, what is taken into account is the consistency between the attributes of an object and the corporate claims regarding the greenness of the object (Linder, 2010 ). Therefore, the focus is on the specific object of communication and its characteristics. According to this view greenwashing can be considered “false advertising” (Mills, 2009 ), “ads and labels that promise more environmental benefit than they deliver” (Dahl, 2010 ), “unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental or social benefits of a product” (Bazillier & Vauday, 2013 ). The process attribute view focuses on the communication process. In particular, it takes into account the corporate inputs or efforts that have gone into communicating the greenness of a product, in relation to the efforts to improve the product’s actual green credentials. Examples of process attribute view definitions are the Greenpeace definition (Greenwashing as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”), which is one of the most cited in literature, or the Marquis and Toffel’s definition: “Greenwashing is the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities” (Marquis & Toffel, 2011 , p.19). In relation to the process attribute view, Mitchell and Ramey ( 2011 ) specify that to be considered greenwashing, the “act” has to be deliberate, implying the intentionality of the deception (Nyilasy, Gangadharbatla, & Paladino, 2012 ).

Seele and Gatti ( 2017 ) recognize another fundamental aspect of greenwashing: it is a phenomenon in the eye of the beholder. According to the authors, regardless of the level of falsehood of corporate CSR communication, greenwashing only exists when a message is highlighted as such by NGOs, the media, or other stakeholders. Therefore, the accusation from a third party is an essential aspect of greenwashing.

Consequences of greenwashing

Our qualitative analysis of greenwashing literature has provided a summary of the main consequences of greenwashing, especially for consumers and companies. Tables 4 A and 4B in the previous chapter provide a structured and comprehensive summary of greenwashing consequences discussed in literature, expanding the analysis of Lyon and Montgomery’s article (2015) in light of new studies and research in the field. In the tables, greenwashing consequences are divided into three main groups: A) consumers, B) companies, C) other stakeholders, the environment, and the society at large. The first category presents the effects of greenwashing related to consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and intentions. In the second group, we report internal consequences for companies engaged in greenwashing. Group three includes the more general effects of greenwashing in terms of environmental and social aspects or related to other stakeholders such as employees or stockholders.

Below we briefly discuss the main consequences identify by our analysis and reported in the tables:

First of all, the research literature agrees that the practice of greenwashing is associated with several negative effects on consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and intentions (Table 4 A). although evoking nature may mislead consumers in their evaluation of corporate image, especially if they are not experts on CSR related issues (Parguel, Benoît-Moreau, & Larceneux, 2011 ), the wide range of greenwashing cases is causing consumers to become increasingly skeptical of corporate CSR claims (Aji & Sutikno, 2015 ; Rahman, Park, & Geng-qing Chi, 2015 ). As a consequence, superficial and sporadic CSR communication may have a negative influence on consumers’ purchase intentions, regardless of the level of corporate involvement in greenwashing practices (Rahman et al., 2015 ). This widespread skepticism, probably means that consumers perceive less greenwashing when a company communicates an economic motive than when it communicates an environmental or social motive for an investment (de Vries, Terwel, Ellemers, & Daamen, 2015 ), surprising as this may be.

In addition, greenwashing increases consumers’ confusion about corporate CSR (Furlow, 2010 ) and it seems to have a negative effect on consumers’ brand evaluation (Parguel et al., 2011 ), consumers’ opinion about corporate environmental sustainability (Mason & Mason, 2012 ), consumer green trust (Chen & Chang, 2013 ), consumer word of mouth (Chen, Lin, & Chang, 2014 ), and also on consumers’ brand attitudes (Nyilasy et al., 2012 ; Nyilasy, Gangadharbatla, & Paladino, 2014 ).

Greenwashing also seems to negatively affect the firm’s financial performance (Table 4 B). Indeed, although it may sometimes be used to successfully deflect attention away from negative CSR behavior (Du et al., 2016 ), it often seems to harm firms financially (Du, 2015 ; Walker & Wan, 2012 ), especially in the current context characterized by a high scrutiny from civil society and growing stakeholder skepticism. In particular, it negatively affects corporate legitimacy and reputation, even when corporate communication is not misleading, and the greenwashing accusation is false (Seele & Gatti, 2017 ). Indeed, corporate CSR communications may backfire on the company if the public feels that the company is engaging in self-promotion (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013 ). As a consequence, companies are now less motivated to become less environmentally harmful because it does not pay off. Therefore, following Furlow ( 2010 ), greenwashing will ultimately hurt not only consumers and companies, but also the environment.

CSR regulations to prevent greenwashing practices

Greenwashing literature recognizes the importance of NGOs and activist groups in detecting greenwashing (Bazillier & Vauday, 2013 ; Lyon & Maxwell, 2011 ; Seele & Gatti, 2017 ) but it also suggests that some firms may disclose less about their CSR because of the fear of being accused of greenwashing (Lyon & Maxwell, 2011 ). Nevertheless, scholars agree that the first condition to decrease greenwashing is through the refinement and development of a CSR regulatory system. The interesting point here is that they do not seem to embrace the mainstream view discussed in CSR literature claiming the predominance of the voluntary nature of CSR. Indeed, according to greenwashing scholars, defining and treating CSR essentially as a voluntary practice facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. As Alves ( 2009 ) claims, “the volunteer-led CSR paradigm of the last decades has both coddled and promoted the proliferation of green spin and greenwashing.” With the exception of Mahoney, Thorne, Cecil, and LaGore ( 2013 ), who suggest that voluntary CSR reports are generally a sign of high-quality CSR and not greenwashing, all the other articles we analyzed look at the voluntary dimension of CSR, supported by the majority of CSR definitions (Dahlsrud, 2008 ), as one of the main antecedents favoring the diffusion of greenwashing.

In addition, as summarized in Table 5 , greenwashing scholars argue that “a reduction of greenwashing activities requires at least industry-wide codes of practices and, at best, regulation” (Smith & Font, 2014 ). Greenwashing literature is indeed consistent in stressing the necessity of involving regulators and policy makers for developing CSR standards and legislation. The range of scholarly suggestions covers pleas for self-regulation bodies (Kirchhoff, 2000 ) or independent auditing or rating (Huang & Chen, 2015 ; Parguel et al., 2011 ) and general demands for standards and regulations (Polonsky, Grau, & Garma, 2010 ) as well as a clear call for “federal regulations” (Feinstein, 2013 ) as the strongest form of third-party involvement. According to greenwashing scholars, this would substantially decrease greenwashing practices and would ultimately lead to a more trustworthy form of CSR.

As noted above, the perspective adopted by scholars seems not to be in line with the traditional mainstream approach of CSR research. In CSR literature, the principle of voluntarism is predominant and implies that responsible business activities are discretionary and reach beyond the rule of law. Conceptually, this principle implies that governments have a minimal role, if any, in the CSR debate (Dentchev, Balen, & Haezenck, 2015 ). However, the exclusion of mandatory aspects in the definition of CSR has recently been challenged by a number of scholars (Waagstein, 2011 ). Moreover, a growing number of governments are enacting CSR laws and regulations (e.g. Indonesia – 2007, Denmark – 2008, France – 2010, Philippines and Spain – 2011, Argentina and Brazil – 2012, India and Norway – 2013, European Union 2014), thus creating a debate as to whether the nature of CSR is exclusively voluntary or may include a mandatory dimension. Even the European Union has changed its well-known definition of CSR (“concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” Commission of the European Communities, 2001) to include a mandatory dimension, introducing the importance of policy measures and regulations to prevent unfair CSR and greenwashing behaviours.

In this debate, greenwashing scholars reflect recent perspectives on the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the CSR definition and practice (Cominetti & Seele, 2016 ; Gatti, Vishwanath, Seele, & Cottier, 2018 ; Sheehy, 2015 ; Waagstein, 2011 ; Wagner & Seele, 2017 ). Indeed, they strongly support the necessary development of mandatory elements for the establishment of a “better”, more credible CSR. In this respect, they provide a considerable contribution to the general discussion about voluntary versus mandatory CSR by explicitly addressing the consequences of a totally voluntary approach in terms of greenwashing, and, above all, by proposing and discussing specific regulatory solutions to reduce such practices.

Kirchhoff ( 2000 ), for example, tests a model for preventing greenwashing based on the introduction of a fine into the environmental labeling system. To work effectively, the model requires a third-party independent labeling authority, whose presence seems to decrease greenwashing and favor compliance to CSR standards. The introduction of an external authority to monitor CSR is also supported by Laufer ( 2003 ), who introduces the concept of tripartism, i.e. the integration of a third party into the regulatory arena, as a solution against greenwashing.

In relation to environment labeling or eco-marks, Lane ( 2010 ) offers an in-depth analysis of enforcement techniques to prevent greenwashing in eco-mark systems. Indeed, though eco-marks’ core purpose is to protect and inform consumers about the products’ green credentials, sometimes they are used by companies to mislead consumers about the environmental characteristics of a product. Following Lane ( 2010 ), public anti-greenwashing enforcement achieves better results than private eco-mark enforcement or consumers’ actions. In particular, government agency investigations and certification mark enforcement litigation seem to be the most successful mechanisms against the improper use of eco-marks.

Also claim that civil actions by consumers and investors are not enough to prevent greenwashing and that CSR related communication should be more strongly policed. Remedies under false advertising laws and under securities fraud laws should be investigated and further developed (Cherry and Sneirson, 2011 ).

In general, greenwashing scholars seem to agree that an independent environmental audit system and additional public regulation may prevent companies with poor environmental performance to engage in greenwashing (Huang & Chen, 2015 ).

Combing the voluntary and mandatory dimensions to promote CSR

Summing up the contribution of greenwashing literature to the ongoing debate about voluntary versus mandatory CSR, we can see strong support for the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the regulations of CSR.

Voluntary CSR is often considered in literature as a solution to corporate social and environmental externalities caused by globalized companies. The advent of globalization has complicated the regulation of corporate behaviors at the point that governmental regulations are no more capable of preventing several unsustainable behaviors. Not only voluntary CSR is discussed in literature as a solution to a deficit in regulation, but also it is often considered the most efficient way to address social problems. As claimed by Sheehy ( 2015 ), the voluntary dimension of CSR is motivated by the argument that “individual firms are better able to find ways to implement CSR and reduce their social costs more effectively when tailored by management to the specific industry or firm in which it is being applied” (p. 640). However, the voluntary approach is also criticized by CSR scholars for promoting free-riding behaviors and for the impossibility to sanction transgressions (O’Neill, 2007 ). Following Lock and Seele ( 2016 ), voluntary CSR may also question the transparency and credibility of CSR communication, given that companies are free to communicate what they want and how they want. A grey zone is thereby established that reinforces tendencies towards exaggeration and self-promotion, which might also include false information (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013 ; Seele & Gatti, 2017 ), and thereby enlarges the risk of reputational damage. A growing culture of self-promotion and falsehood (or the perception of such) increases the chances of the misinterpretation of CSR by consumers and other stakeholders and it increases consumer disorientation and skepticism (Furlow, 2010 ; Rahman et al., 2015 ).

It is important to note that also mandatory CSR per se may create grey zone areas where parties look for ways around the rules. For example, Wang et al. ( 2016 ) suggests that mandatory CSR may contribute to an unfair allocation of corporate CSR resources to personal projects and initiatives (with a limited social value). At an extreme case, it can “become a cover for graft and corruption by funding local political projects or organizations” (Wang et al. 2016 , p. 540).

To reduce and prevent the diffusion of greenwashing, we therefore propose, in line with greenwashing research and institutional theorists (e.g. Sheehy, 2015 ; Waagstein, 2011 ), a paradigm shift integrating both the voluntary and mandatory dimensions of CSR.

As suggested by the European Commission, in the development of CSR “public authorities should play a supporting role through a smart mix of voluntary policy measures and, where necessary, complementary regulation” (European Commission ( 2011 ) 681). The introduction of reporting and communication standards and the establishment of independent environmental audit systems, as supported by greenwashing scholars, would therefore help to reduce the grey zone creates by the predominant totally voluntary approach. Finally, a reduction in greenwashing has the potential to increase trust in corporate green behavior and help to positively impact social welfare (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015 ).

The new paradigm is based on a new CSR definition integrating both voluntary and mandatory aspects. Indeed, Sheehy ( 2015 ) claims that CSR consists of “private international law norms seeking to ameliorate and mitigate the social harms of and to promote public good by industrial organisations” (p. 639). Following the institutional framework, CSR can be therefore defined “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015 ), regardless the fact that the “regulation” is a private, self-regulated initiative, or it is publicly imposed. This means that each specific social system (characterized by specific values, norms, and regulations) is responsible for shaping a specific form of CSR, characterized by a unique combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects. Thus, there is not a priori the perfect combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects, but each context designs a specific form of CSR. In India, for example, The Indian Companies Act 2013 legally requires firms to spend a percentage of their profits on CSR activities, while in US current CSR primarily consists of private business self-regulation (Gatti et al., 2018 ).

The new conceptualization of CSR “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015 ) proposed by institutional theorists and supported by greenwashing scholars as a way to prevent greenwashing, has a number of implications. First, it implies the transition from the idea of CSR as an internal management tool toward a broader understanding of the business and society relationship (Gatti et al., 2018 ). This shift in perspective has consequences at both a practical and theoretical level. Firms should be prepared to professionalize their CSR effort beyond mere impression management, or corporate communication practices. CSR activities should be increasingly treated as legal responsibilities, not just as marketing-related projects. Professionals in the field of law should therefore collaborate with experts in public relations and communication to ensure the transition of CSR as a form of regulation.

Also on the scholarly level the CSR transition toward regulation implies a shift in the competencies of CSR scholars. While for years CSR issues have been mainly related to business ethics, management and marketing studies, we expect now that the debate would be also addressed (more) in the field of law.

As previously claimed, the introduction of standards to regulate CSR does not mean the complete negation of a voluntary dimension. As discussed by Sheehy ( 2015 ), considering CSR as a form of regulation does not merely imply a collection of mandatory rules imposed by public authorities to regulate firms’ societal and environmental harms. Indeed, it also include self-regulation. As reported by Cominetti and Seele ( 2016 ), at the moment 88.2% of CSR standards consist of soft law initiatives, that is, self-regulated standards supported by the firms themselves, as for example the United Nations (UN) Global Compact. Firms can voluntarily adopt the UN Global Compact’s principles, with the sole obligation of communicating every year their progress about human rights and environmental issues.


By reviewing existing greenwashing literature, this paper provides an instrument for greenwashing scholars and practitioners to better understand the main implications and characteristics of the phenomenon. Moreover, by presenting and discussing greenwashing literature, it also contributes to the refining of CSR theory by encouraging reflection on the relationship between CSR and regulation.

First, it offers a picture of the current status of research into greenwashing, showing where and how the field is evolving. In particular, our quantitative analysis shows the current flourishing of greenwashing research and the centrality of the theme within the broader CSR debate. It also reports the variety of subjects addressing the topic, the main methodological techniques applied in the field, and the principal theoretical approaches of greenwashing scholars. This analysis reveals the interdisciplinary state of the field, characterized by a mix of methods, frameworks, and approaches.

Secondly, the presentation of results and findings of greenwashing research, especially the tables provided in section 4, offers a summary that can be used by practitioners to evaluate the consequences and implications of corporate engagement in such practices. In particular, although greenwashing may sometimes be successfully used to influence consumers’ perception about the firm’s CSR and deflect attention away from negative behaviors, the risk of negative effects on consumers’ attitudes, and more generally on the firm’s performance, is increasing. This is especially true in the current context, characterized by a high level of scrutiny and skepticism. Therefore, greenwashing may finally backfire on the company and dramatically decrease its corporate reputation, leading to a reduction of corporate legitimacy resulting eventually in a legitimacy crisis.

Thirdly, the paper also contributes to the general debate about the voluntary versus mandatory nature of CSR. Greenwashing research consistently supports the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the conceptualization of CSR, which contradicts the traditional CSR paradigm exclusively based on the principle of voluntarism. Our analysis of the literature, therefore, contributes to the refinement of the theory and conceptualization of CSR because it highlights the implications and consequences of a totally voluntary approach, and strongly supports the inclusion of mandatory solutions proposed by greenwashing scholars, which would favor the implementation of a level playing field and thus, a more credible form of CSR. Understanding CSR “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015 ), may effectively increase businesses’ ability to engage in CSR and defend themselves from unwarranted attacks (Sheehy, 2015 ). Even when CSR regulation is expressed as a private industry self-regulation and not as public law, it can contribute to improving corporate practice. For example, certification (such as the GRI, SA8000, and ISO26000) (defined by the ISO organization as “the provision by an independent body of written assurance (a certificate) that the product service or system in question meets specific requirements”. [ISO organization. Retrived Jan 25 from: http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards/certification.htm ).] is an important tool for companies to show their commitment with respect to a specific CSR standard (Knebel & Seele, 2015 ).

While it is not realistic to think that a new approach to CSR may finally eradicate all the unfair and controversial behaviors, the integration of mandatory and voluntary aspects in the field, as supported by this research, aims at establishing more favorable conditions for the diffusion of good practices and a fair and transparent CSR communication. Indeed, we believe that the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the CSR conceptualization implies a change in the practice. Practitioners in the field of marketing and public relations should prepare to professionalize CSR beyond mere impression management, in favor of a more transparent and controllable practice, subject to different forms of regulations and standards such as GRI (Wagner & Seele, 2017 ), or the EU directive on mandatory reporting (2014/95/EU), requiring companies with more than 500 employees listed on EU markets to disclose in their annual reports their progresses related to environmental and social issues. The introduction of a legal dimension in the field could in turn decrease skepticism and improve the relationship between organizations and their public. However, it requires the acceptance that the CSR debate is not only a topic in the field of management and corporate communication, but is entering new spheres related to the legal, ethical and political dimensions of business. As recently claimed by Gatti et al. ( 2018 ), “this transition asks for theory development in the direction of CSR compliance”. Indeed, especially self-regulatory standards as codes of conducts or private corporate initiatives cannot rely on public sanctions. It is therefore fundamental to identify mechanisms to promote compliance. To this regard, as discussed in the previous chapter, greenwashing scholars contribute to the debate by identify a number of mechanisms and initiatives (such as tripartism, public anti-greenwashing enforcement and certification mark infringement litigation) that decrease greenwashing and ensure a more transparent and fair CSR communication.

This study involves some limitations that open up room for future research. The major limitation is probably linked to the selection of our data set. First, the selection of relevant articles is primarily based on specific keywords (greenwash/greenwashing). One shortcoming of this method is that some relevant articles that use labels other than these keywords are not included in the dataset. In particular, new and less established terms, such as CSR washing, poorwashing, bluewashing or corporate hypocrisy (Janney & Gove, 2011 ) are slowly spreading among scholars to indicate greenwashing practices dealing with social and humanitarian issues. Another phenomenon very related to greenwashing is indicated by the term symbolic conformity (Jamali, 2010 ), also known as ceremonial conformity or decoupling of implementation from certification (Aravind & Christmann, 2011 ; Christmann & Taylor, 2006 ; Meyer & Rowan, 1977 ). The concept refers to the phenomenon of obtaining and showing standard certification without continuously complying with the requirements prescribed by the certification (Aravind & Christmann, 2011 ).

Secondly, in this study, we restricted our selection to papers that mention the search terms in the title or abstract. Although this choice was justified by the intent of identifying those articles with a clear focus on the topic, by narrowing the search in this way we may have excluded some interesting examples or discussions. To extend the analysis of greenwashing research, similar concepts and terms should, therefore, be considered in the selection of greenwashing related literature. In addition, greenwashing-related discussions presented in more general CSR and corporate communication papers should be included in the content analysis.

Future research should try to enlarge the scope of study by also including monographs or book chapters, which were not considered in this review. Additionally, by expanding the analysis to non-English research, future studies may also explore cultural differences in the interpretation and analysis of greenwashing.

In relation to future research, we also suggest maintaining the interdisciplinary character of the field, because the literature may benefit from the variety of approaches and perspectives provided by different subjects and methods and, as this review shows, it may generate original and significant contributions also to the CSR debate and, more generally, to the discussion about the relationship between business and society. Indeed, we recognize that one of the main characteristics and strengths of greenwashing research is that the issue is not limited to a specific framework or approach but is, on the contrary, addressed from different angles. For instance, while marketing scholars have studied the effects of greenwashing on consumers and companies, academics in the field of law have mainly concentrated on the relationship between regulation and CSR, providing practical solutions for reducing greenwashing, while management scholars have offered an interesting analysis of the institutional framework surrounding greenwashing phenomena, which is useful to understand the conditions and the context of greenwashing. In combination, these different contributions have offered a broad picture of the phenomenon and have allowed an understanding of its nature. We, therefore, suggest increasing the interdisciplinary dialogue that characterizes greenwashing literature in order to encourage the production of new and original insights.

Availability of data and materials

The full list of articles analyzed in this review article is available upon request from the authors.

Data retrieved from ABI/Inform database. English scholarly articles. 14-03-2019.

This search included articles published before December 31rst 2018.

For space constraints the full list is not included in the article. The full list is available upon request from the authors.


  • Corporate social responsibility

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Gatti, L., Seele, P. & Rademacher, L. Grey zone in – greenwash out. A review of greenwashing research and implications for the voluntary-mandatory transition of CSR. Int J Corporate Soc Responsibility 4 , 6 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40991-019-0044-9

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  • Greenwashing
  • CSR communication
  • Mandatory CSR

research paper on greenwashing

A bibliometric analysis of greenwashing research: a closer look at agriculture, food industry and food retail

British Food Journal

ISSN : 0007-070X

Article publication date: 19 November 2021

Issue publication date: 17 December 2021

This paper aims at providing an overview and synthesis of the existing body of knowledge about greenwashing. Special attention is paid to the articles directly linked with agriculture, food industry and food retail.


A bibliometric analysis was performed over 351 documents extracted from the WoS database, using SciMAT and VOSviewer software programs.

Three periods in the academic literature about greenwashing can be distinguished: ground-setting (2003–2010), trail-blazing (2011–2015) and remarkable growth (2016–2020). Along this evolution, a body of knowledge which stemmed from the literature about CSR has achieved a major development, deploying different research lines such as stakeholders' management, marketing and communication and audit. A specific analysis of the academic literature about greenwashing in agriculture, food industry and food retail has been carried out, showing a need for further development.

Social implications

The development of scientific knowledge about greenwashing puts this social claim on the spotlight of business management studies, helping to fight greenwashing and, this way, to reduce the environmental impact of corporate activities. Studying greenwashing will help to reduce its frequency and, therefore, heal the planet.


Some previous studies have provided systematic reviews of the literature using different approaches, but they did not untangle the intellectual structure and the evolution of the body of research about greenwashing. This article originally provides a thorough analysis of these aspects, as well as a closer look at the impact of greenwashing practices in the academic literature regarding agriculture, food industry and food retail.

  • Greenwashing
  • Greenhushing
  • Agriculture
  • Food industry
  • Food retail
  • Bibliometric analysis
  • Co-word analysis

Montero-Navarro, A. , González-Torres, T. , Rodríguez-Sánchez, J.-L. and Gallego-Losada, R. (2021), "A bibliometric analysis of greenwashing research: a closer look at agriculture, food industry and food retail", British Food Journal , Vol. 123 No. 13, pp. 547-560. https://doi.org/10.1108/BFJ-06-2021-0708

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Copyright © 2021, Antonio Montero-Navarro, Thais González-Torres, José-Luis Rodríguez-Sánchez and Rocio Gallego-Losada

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1. Introduction

The once traditional sole focus on the financial performance of the organizations is no longer a reality. Nowadays, companies have to deal with the aspirations of many stakeholders, groups which demand a sufficient degree of satisfaction of their goals and interests. Stakeholders like consumers, investors, governments and the society as a whole are increasingly requiring responsible behaviors from companies, as well as demanding transparency in the information about their environmental performance ( Chen and Chang, 2013 ; Marquis et al. , 2016 ). Consequently, green markets —products, services, investment opportunities and firms— and responsible disclosure of business information have been expanding rapidly in the last years ( Delmas and Burbano, 2011 ).

The main goal of a responsible disclosure of business information is to communicate the sustainable practices of a firm to its stakeholders, in order to improve its corporate reputation and, thus, influence the stakeholder's behavior towards the company and its products or services. The expected outcomes of these practices are improved financial performance and increased societal gain derived from a change of behavior ( Font et al. , 2017 ).

It is in this context that the phenomenon of greenwashing arises. Considering the potential benefits of having an environmentally concerned image, sustainability communication not accompanied by real practices is becoming increasingly frequent ( Lyon and Maxwell, 2011 ). Starting from the initial formulation of Jay Westervelt in 1986, the term greenwashing has become a standard to describe this kind of practices. There are many definitions of the term, such as the one provided by Tateishi (2017) , who affirms that it is a type of “communication that misleads people regarding environmental performance/benefits by disclosing negative information and disseminating positive information about an organization, service, or product”.

Along with the social concern about this practice, the academia is paying a growing attention to it, as it raises challenging research opportunities for many academic disciplines ( Lyon and Montgomery, 2015 ).The number of scholarly articles mentioning greenwashing has increased sharply in the last decades, remarkably since 2016. Given the environmental impact of food related activities, greenwashing is also a relevant concern for those who study the policies, actions and behaviors of the main agents involved along the food supply chain ( Alons, 2017 ; DeFries et al. , 2017 ; Guyader et al. , 2017 ).

This article aims at providing an overview and synthesis of research on the notion and practices of greenwashing. This general objective is broken down into the following specific objectives: (1) to assess the academic productivity through the historical evolution of publications; (2) to determine the intellectual structure of the research topic; (3) to uncover the thematic organization of the research topic; and (4) to identify the conceptual structure of the research topic. Along with them, an additional goal would be (5) to analyze the specific research trends concerning greenwashing in agriculture, food industry and food retail.

Which is the historical evolution of the literature about greenwashing?

Which are the main documents that have influenced the intellectual structure of the topic?

Which are the main journals around which the research topic is organized?

Which are the patterns and hot topics in the field of greenwashing?

Which are the main concerns boarded by the researchers about greenwashing in agriculture, food industry and food retail?

This article provides academics with an overview of the current situation and trends of this research body. The results of this study are especially relevant considering the importance of the topic of greenwashing and the emphasis of society and institutions in developing a sustainable growth.

2. Methodology

In order to answer these research questions and achieve the objectives, this article uses a bibliometric methodological approach, following other relevant works. Bibliometric analysis provides the researchers with different tools that help them to assess the academic productivity, its impact and its relative influence; to establish the intellectual structure of the research topic as well as its evolution; and to identify the different subtopics and its conceptual structure ( Gomezelj, 2016 ; Marasco et al. , 2018 ).

The information search strategy has been based on the bibliographic database Web of Science (WoS), one of the most prestigious in the field of social sciences and frequently used for bibliometric studies in management and organization fields. In order to avoid the researchers' subjectivity in data collection, a keyword search has been carried out. The search terms selected were “greenwashing”, “greenwash” and “greenhushing”. The research included articles, proceedings papers, book chapters and reviews published in peer-reviewed journals included in the database from January 1990 to December 2020.

The number of documents obtained is 360. All the results have been double-checked by the authors in order to eliminate duplicates and confirming that they fit the object of the study. From this screening, a total of 351 articles were chosen.

Initially, SciMAT software ( Cobo et al. , 2012 ) has been used in order to deliver productivity measures about the research field, considering the historical evolution of the publications ( RQ1 ), the most influential ones ( RQ2 ) and the main journals where they have been published ( RQ3 ). The article also includes relational techniques through a bibliometric mapping approach using the VOSviewer software in order to determine the evolution of the intellectual structure of the field of knowledge ( RQ4 ). This software “pays special attention to the graphical representation of bibliometric maps. The functionality of VOSviewer is especially useful for displaying large bibliometric maps in an easy-to-interpret way” ( Van Eck and Waltman, 2010 , p. 523).

Finally, a specific literature review of 19 articles directly related with greenwashing in agriculture, food industry or food retail has been carried out ( RQ5 ). This selection was carried out by the authors, using a double-check process, after reading the abstract and, when needed, the entire content of each of the 351 papers included in the bibliometric analysis.

3. Results and discussion

3.1 productivity measures.

Figure 1 shows the growth of the number of academic articles per year in the field of greenwashing. The first publication ( Mulligan, 1999 ) appeared in the Institute Development Studies Bulletin.

When analyzing the number of publications per year, a growth trend can be clearly recognized. We can identify three stages in the development of the academic literature about greenwashing: ground-setting (1999–2010); trail-blazing (2011–2015); and remarkable growth (2016–2020).

The growing environmental awareness of our society has increased academics' interest in the phenomenon of greenwashing as an instrument used by practitioners to improve their strategic positions ( Antunes et al. , 2015 ; Wolniak and Hąbek, 2015 ). Specially, the years after 2015 have meant a clear burst in the publication of fresh academic literature, roughly accumulating two-thirds (63.3%) of the 351 documents. Consequently, it could be said that research in the field of greenwashing is a hot topic that is gaining importance in the recent years.

As can be seen in Table 1 , a 28.5% of the authors are linked with US universities, while some other countries, such as the UK, China, Canada and Germany are also importantly represented. Amongst the top 10 countries we can distinguish two North American ones (US and Canada), some of the main European economies (the UK, Germany, France and Italy), two industrial powers (China and Brazil) and Australia, due to the importance of its natural resources.

Table 1 also shows the most productive journals and the main interest areas to which these publications are related. In total, 8 journals (3.3%) gathered 74 articles, which means a 21.1%, resulting in a relatively high degree of concentration of the publications.

The Journal of Business Ethics leads clearly the list, where we can find journals looking at greenwashing from different points of view: management, mainly influenced by a stakeholders' approach; communication and consumer perceptions; accountability and audit, linked with the disclosure of financial and ecological performance information made by the organizations; and ecology and sustainability. Some of these sources belong, in fact, to two different areas of concern, being placed in the intersection between business economics and environmental sciences, which can be a proof of a claim for a new and more sustainable way of management.

The 351 articles were written by 808 different authors. The vast majority of them (92.6%; n  = 748/808) took part in just one publication; 6.1% of the authors ( n  = 49/808) published two ones; and 1.4% ( n  = 11/808) are credited in three or more publications. Table 2 displays the most productive ones, with three or more articles published in this research field.

The relative youth of the academic concern about greenwashing, along with the diversity of perspectives and the alignment with different concerns (management, marketing, production, public policies and environment), has resulted in the existence of many research teams, which are developing their work in different lines. The most prolific authors are Lyon, especially concerned with the information disclosure made by corporations; Chen, mainly focused on the perceptions of the consumers; Testa, who is especially concerned about the role of the stakeholders of a firm; Font, whose works are associated with sustainable tourism; and Siano and Vollero, focused on the communication of CSR actions.

Table 3 shows the articles with the highest number of citations in absolute terms (>100) ordered by citations per year (C/Y). The only repeated source in the top 10 places is the Journal of Business Ethics, showing again its referential role in this academic field.

The most cited paper in relative terms ( Delmas and Burbano, 2011 ), gathering the ideas of the previous literature, classifies the drivers of greenwashing into three different groups (external, organizational and individual), generating a framework which has been the basis of many later studies. The most cited paper in absolute terms (457 cites) is the work of Laufer (2003) , which states that the problems faced by firms when developing accurate responsible information are the same ones that they have to face when trying to accomplish the law.

Dealing with agriculture, food industry and food retail, Sirieux et al. (2013) , the most cited work about greenwashing related with food retail, positioned in the 12th place of citations, study the perception of the consumers about sustainable food labels compared and combined with other different kinds of labels (such as nutritional facts …).

3.2 Relational techniques: co-word analysis

Relational techniques, such as co-word analysis, are used to identify patterns and detect hot topics inside a research field. Co-word analysis provides an insight into the main themes and research trends, studying the most frequent keywords. “When words frequently co-occur in documents, it means that the concepts behind those words are closely related. It is the only method that uses the actual content of the documents to construct a similarity measure” ( Zupic and Čater, 2015 , p. 6).

As it was previously stated, we can identify three stages in the development of the literature: 1999–2010 (ground-setting); 2011–2015 (trail-blazing) and 2016–2020 (remarkable growth). In order to provide a detailed overview about the evolution of the topics, three co-word analyses were conducted.

In total, 32 articles related with greenwashing were published in the ground-setting period (1999–2010). These papers include a total of 111 keywords. In order to represent the knowledge structure, the map shown by Figure 2 considers the terms present in at least 2 publications. In this period, greenwashing was not a main concern for the literature yet, so it started to appear in different works mainly related with CSR. In fact, the keyword “greenwashing” has the lowest link strength of the ones included in this period.

As it was commented before, maybe the studies about CSR and sustainable development, gathered in the red cluster, were the origin of the academic concern about greenwashing. This is obviously linked with the environmental impact of the activities of the firms (such as construction), gathered in the green cluster; as well as with the legitimacy of the businesses, derived from their ethical behavior, referred in the blue cluster.

During the trail-blazing period (2011–2015) there was a significant increase in the number of articles. The 97 papers published in these years include 559 keywords. Figure 3 considers the 18 terms present in a minimum of 4 publications. A substantial change can be remarked: greenwashing appears in the core of the map, ceasing to be a consequence of the study of other subjects. Therefore, “greenwashing” is the main keyword, while CSR remains as a key issue. The claim for “sustainability” also gains importance as one of the main drivers of the information disclosure of firms.

The map reveals the presence of 4 different clusters. The yellow one is the smallest considering the number of keywords, but possibly the strongest regarding the internal and external links with other clusters. During this period, sustainability issues gained more importance as a relevant research topic for academics. So, it should be noted that the relationship sustainability-greenwashing, in the yellow cluster, is strengthened compared with previous years and is central in the academic concerns about greenwashing in this period. “Ethics” remains as one of the drivers of the academic literature about this topic.

The node “greenwashing” is also closely and strongly related with “management” and “corporate social responsibility”, the two key terms included in the red cluster, which has mainly business management associations (“reputation”, “information” or “firm”). The growing relevance of a stakeholder approach in business management has a clear impact in the literature, which is increasingly caring about the perception that these interest groups may have about the actions of a company. This cluster also shows the relevance of “information”, “consumer” and “consumption”, which seems reasonable, as when customers perceive a firm as socially responsible they may be more willing to buy its products, even at a higher price ( Grimmer and Bingham, 2013 ).

These impressions of the stakeholders may be also based on one critical aspect about greenwashing, the quality of the information disclosed. So, the green cluster includes terms such as “communication” or “environmental disclosure”, which should be the basis of the “legitimacy” of a company in front of the main stakeholders and, consequently, it's “performance”.

The blue cluster deals mainly with the actions required to put responsibility into practice. So, some terms such as “innovation”, “sustainable development”, “green” and “environment” are especially relevant. The presence of “green marketing” reflects that it is also possible to use the real actions and behaviors of a company to improve its image in the face of customers without greenwashing.

Finally, the remarkable growth period (2016–2020) has witnessed a definitive bloom of the publications focused on greenwashing. The 222 papers published in this period include 1,288 keywords. Figure 4 maps them, including the 26 terms which can be found in at least 10 publications.

As can be seen, the “greenwashing” node has a central position in the network, evidencing the proximity to the rest of nodes and therefore, the current relevance of the topic. According to this, recent literature maintains its interest in the relationship between “greenwashing” and “corporate social responsibility”.

Some of the trends shown in the trail-blazing period are firmly established and have been developed along these last years. So, the red cluster is mainly related with stakeholder management (“governance”, “climate change”, “corporate social responsibility”, “sustainability”, “pollution” …). Inside this group we can also find “strategy” and “performance”, reinforcing and signaling the critical role of the Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) practices of “businesses” in the “management” of companies nowadays.

The responsible behavior of a firm does not grant an adequate image in the mind of the stakeholders. An appropriate communication strategy is needed to show the interest groups what a firm really does. The blue cluster, which includes terms such as “disclosure”, “environmental performance” and “quality” gathers the main issues that could be required to gain “legitimacy” in front of the society.

Finally, the green cluster is mainly marketing oriented. Different tools and information channels that could be used to disseminate greenwashing and achieve better purchase intentions and brand attitudes are explored here. Consequently, terms like ‘consumer’, ‘perception’, ‘behavior’, ‘trust’ or ‘green marketing’ are included.

Considering the analysis of the topics boarded by the literature in the most recent years, we could state that there are currently three main pillars, which are clearly intertwined, in the academic research about greenwashing: management (related with a stakeholder approach), audit (mainly concerned about the disclosure of information) and marketing (especially focused on one stakeholder, the consumer).

4. A closer look at the academic research about greenwashing in agriculture, food industry and food retail

Amongst the 351 papers selected for this bibliometric analysis, just 19, gathered in Table 4 , are directly related with agriculture, food industry or food retail. This proportion is low if we consider the frequent presence of these industries in the mass media, associated with potential greenwashing practices. Also, the importance of the studies about food packaging ( Vila-Lopez et al. , 2021 ) could have generated more literature linked with greenwashing.

It must be remarked that just two of these 19 papers ( Francis, 2004 ; Francis et al. , 2007 ) were published before 2010, which means a low presence of the industry in the ground-setting period of the literature about greenwashing. Therefore, a first conclusion of this analysis is the presence of an interesting research opportunity: there is a need to get deeper into the study of greenwashing in these sectors.

Regarding agriculture , we can find three topics: the adoption of sustainable practices by the production units, especially the small farms; the effect of supranational organizations on the sustainability of the industry through their policies; and the impact of certification programs, contributing to greening, or to greenwashing, the production. So, the studies published in this sector are especially related with sustainability and legitimacy, but they do not get mainly concerned about the perception of the final customer.

Inside the first topic we can locate the works of Bager and Lampin (2020) about the adoption of sustainable practices in the coffee industry; Francis (2004) , dealing with the impact of corporate agriculture on sustainability; and Francis et al. (2007) , who studied the influence of the size of a farm in the adoption of sustainable practices.

Alexander (2019) analyzed the impact of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture on sustainability. Alons (2017) studied the inclusion of the Environmental Policy Integration in the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) of the EU through the analysis of the historical evolution of the CAP. Finally, DeFries et al. (2017) focused on the effects of the adoption of voluntary certification programs for small farms of tropical commodities.

The main concern of the papers related with the food processing industry is related with labels and packaging, considering both the information they reveal about the product and the impressions they cause on the final customers. Organic food plays the main role in some of these studies. So, marketing and communication arise here as the main areas of concern.

Elving and Steenhuis (2014) studied the impact that an industry label has on consumers. In a relatively close approach, Gosselt et al. (2019) studied the interaction between internal CSR claims and external labels. Wagner (2015) is interested in the semiotics of food packaging and the images that can be caused by symbols, icons and barcodes. Finally, two studies carried out by the same research team ( Houghton et al. , 2018 , 2019 ) stress that all the efforts of the tobacco industry, especially in the packaging, are in fact greenwashing, as they try to save the face of a harmful product.

Organic food caught the attention of three studies: Yarosh and Mitina (2018) , who study the certainty of the claims made by the producers of organic food in Crimea; Nguyen et al. (2019) , who deal with the mediating role of green skepticism in the relationship between greenwashing and green purchase intentions; and Schuldt and Hannahan (2013) , who conducted two studies analyzing the role of the personal degree of environmental activism in the perception of organic products.

Only three articles have considered the role of greenwashing in food retail . While two of them ( Gider and Hamm, 2019 ; Saber and Weber, 2019 ) deal with the disclosure of sustainability information made by food retailing companies, Guyader et al. (2017) are more concerned with marketing, and specifically, on how the retailers can direct the attention of the consumers to eco-friendly products.

After this short review, the literature gap can be identified more precisely. There are no specific studies related with stakeholder management in any of these industries, as the attention has been focused on the analysis of the perception of the final customer. Also, the audit and information disclosure perspective could be an interesting point of view to study the food processing industry.

Anyway, as it was stated previously, the low number of papers in this area, along with the importance of sustainability in these sectors and the concentration of the papers in the last two years (7 out of 19) is a signal of an imminent burst in the literary production.

5. Conclusions

Greenwashing is a practice used by some firms, which combines a poor environmental performance with a positive communication about it ( Delmas and Burbano, 2011 ). Academic research in this field of study has grown in parallel with society and media concern about these practices. In fact, the topic is relevant for practitioners and raises challenging issues and research opportunities related with many academic disciplines ( Lyon and Montgomery, 2015 ).

The purpose of this article is to provide with an overview of the research about this form of corporate disinformation. In order to fulfill this objective, we have carried out a bibliometric study to determine the intellectual, thematic and conceptual structure of the research topic, considering the evolution of the literature from an initial ground-setting period to the current burst in the academic interest. This review and synthesis of the literature shows that greenwashing is a topic encompassing a variety of theories, approaches and actors. Thus, it remains an evolving area that requires further research and reflection.

There is an undeniable growing trend in the academic interest, which reflects the increasing concern of the society about this topic ( Delmas and Burbano, 2011 ; Antunes et al. , 2015 ; Wolniak and Hąbek, 2015 ). The relatively low concentration in terms of authors reveals the existence of a huge number of research teams currently working in this area. Regarding the sources which include these papers, the pioneer and clearly leading role of the Journal of Business Ethics is reinforced by some other prominent journals. The literature is grounded on the areas of management, with a special concern about ESG issues; marketing and communication, focused on the impact of the information revealed on the perception of the customers; audit, which analyses information disclosure; and sustainability and environmental management. As for the most cited papers, the literature about greenwashing has built its own classical references, such as Delmas and Burbano (2011) , Laufer (2003) , Lyon and Montgomery (2015) and Seele and Gatti (2017) .

The co-word analysis reveals a clear evolution from the ground-setting period, when the concern about greenwashing appeared as a result of the analysis of CSR, to the trail-blazing stage, when greenwashing became an autonomous research field, outlining the streams (consumer perception, information disclosure, stakeholder management …) that have been developed in the remarkable growth period.

It is also interesting to address greenwashing practices in different industries. In this paper, we have specifically focused on greenwashing practices in agriculture, food industry and food retail, areas of major impact of these inadequate practices. The main concern of the papers dealing with greenwashing in agriculture is the need for sustainability, while the research about greenwashing in the food industry is specially linked with the perceptions of the consumers, mainly through the packaging and labels. Finally, the scarce studies that analyze greenwashing in the food retail deal mainly with the information disclosure of companies. Our analysis shows a relatively scarce academic presence of the study of greenwashing in these industries, which reveals a clear research opportunity in an important area of concern for the society. This gap is specially related with stakeholder management, as no specific attention has been paid to this topic in these sectors.

The main limitations of this paper must be mentioned. The relatively limited sample of documents, especially in the first period, has restricted the interpretation of our findings. Also, only WoS database was selected, which may have reduced the number of results obtained. Finally, as a characteristic feature of bibliometric techniques, the interpretation of the maps is, to a certain extent, subjective.

Notwithstanding these limitations, we consider that this work helps to stimulate further interest in greenwashing as a research topic. In fact, we call for more in-depth analysis of the relationship between sustainable growth and green marketing strategies to identify greenwashing practices. Research is also needed to identify typologies of selective disclosure of information. There is a need to explore not only the financial performance derived from these practices at a given moment, but also the long-term sustainability of this behavior: literature lacks analysis about the effect of selective disclosure on other stakeholders different from consumers, like employees, investors or suppliers.

The increasing importance of the academic production about greenwashing is just the reflection of the growing concern of society not only about the impact of corporate activities over the environment, but also about the need for true, complete and clear information about these practices and their potential impact. So, the development of scientific knowledge about greenwashing becomes a piece of a virtuous circle, which puts this social claim in the spotlight of business management studies, helping in turn to fight greenwashing and, this way, to reduce the environmental impact of corporate activities: studying greenwashing helps to reduce its frequency, and therefore, heals the planet.

research paper on greenwashing

Historical evolution of publications

research paper on greenwashing

Co-occurrence network of keywords in the field of greenwashing (1999–2010)

research paper on greenwashing

Co-occurrence network of keywords in the field of greenwashing (2011–2015)

research paper on greenwashing

Co-occurrence network of keywords in the field of greenwashing (2016–2020)

Distribution of articles by most influential countries, journals and research areas

Countries %Journal %Research areas %
1United States10028.5%Journal of Business Ethics216.0%Business economics16747.6%
2UK349.7%Business Strategy and the Environment123.4%Environmental sciences ecology10128.8%
3China288.0%Sustainability113.1%Social sciences other topics5214.8%
4Canada205.7%Journal of Cleaner Production113.1%Science Technology other topics4312.3%
5Germany195.4%Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management72.0%Engineering288.0%
6Brazil185.1%Environmental Communication41.1%Communication277.7%
7Italy174.8%Organization Environment41.1%Government law154.3%
8Australia154.3%Revista Brasileira de Marketing41.1%Geography102.8%
9France123.4% Public Administration82.3%
10Netherlands123.4% Sociology61.7%

Most prolific authors in greenwashing

RankName of authorCountry of authorUniversity/InstitutionNumber of publications
1Lyon, T.P.USAUniversity of Michigan5
2Chen, Y.S.ChinaChina three Gorges University4
3Font, X.UKUniversity of Surrey4
4Siano, A.ItalyUniversity of Salerno4
5Testa, F.ItalyScuola Superiore Sant’Anna4
6Vollero, A.ItalyUniversity of Salerno4
7Braga, S.S.BrazilUniversidade Estadual Paulista3
8Correa, C.M.BrazilUniversidade Estadual Paulista3
9Da Silva, D.BrazilUniversidade Estadual de Campinas3
10Du X.Q.ChinaXiaomen University3
11Iraldo, F.ItalyScuola Superiore Sant’Anna3

Most frequently cited publications in greenwashing

1The drivers of greenwashingDelmas and Burbano2011California management review36340.3
2Greenwash: Corporate environmental disclosure under threat of auditLyon and Maxwell2011Journal of economics and management strategy29332.6
3Greenwash and green trust: The Mediation effects of green consumer Confusion and green perceived RiskChen and chang2013Journal of business Ethics19828.3
4Social accountability and corporate greenwashingLaufer2003Journal of business Ethics45726.9
5Corporate social responsibility in the banking industry: Motives and financial performanceWu and Shen2013Journal of banking and Finance18826.9
6How sustainability ratings might deter “greenwashing”: A closer look at ethical corporate communicationParguel, Benoit-Moreau and Larceneux2011Journal of business Ethics21724.1
7A research note on standalone corporate social responsibility reports: Signaling or greenwashingMahoney, Thorne, Cecil and LaGore2013Critical perspectives on accounting16123.0
8Perceived greenwashing: The interactive effects of green advertisement and corporate environmental performance on consumer reactionsNyilasy, Gangadharbatla and Paladino2014Journal of business Ethics13422.3
9Legitimizing negative aspects in GRI-Oriented sustainability reporting: A Qualitative analysis of corporate disclosure strategiesHahn and Luelfs2014Journal of business Ethics13222.0
10Corporate social responsibility: The disclosure-performance gapFont, Walmsley, Cogotti, McCombes and Hausler2012Tourism management14518.1
12Consumer's perception of individual and combined sustainable food labels: a UK pilot investigationSirieix013International journal of consumer studies10214.6
TC: Total citations; C/Y: Citations per Year

1 Impact of the definition of climate-smart agriculture by the global Alliance
2 Presence of environmental policy integration in the common agriculture policy (CAP) of the EU
3 Adoption of sustainable practices by the companies of the coffee industry
4 (2011)Green ads' distribution and greenwashing characteristics and practices
5 (2017)Impact of voluntary certification programs for small farms on sustainability
6 Impact of an industry green label on the perceptions of consumers
7 (2007)Relationship between the size of a farm and the adoption of green practices
8 Assumptions made by corporations about the economic, environmental and social dimensions of agricultural sustainability
9 How consumers deal with the CSR information delivered to them through the corporate websites of food producers and retailers
10 (2019)Interaction between external CSR labels and internal CSR claims
11 (2017)How retailers can attract consumers' visual attention and increase sales of eco-friendly products displaying relevant information
12 (2018)Some positive environmental claims can, in fact, be greenwashing when they concern a product considered to be harmful, as tobacco
13 (2019)Some positive environmental claims can, in fact, be greenwashing when they concern a product considered to be harmful, as tobacco
14 (2019)Mediation effects of green scepticism and moderating effects of information and knowledge in the relationship between greenwashing and green purchase intentions
15 Quality and approach of reporting, considering how German grocery retailers report negative aspects and which communicative legitimation strategies they apply
16 Analysis of the relationship of environmental concern and the evaluation of organic food
17 (2013)Perceptions of sustainable labels vs. other labels such as nutrition ones
18 Semiotics of food packaging
19 Certainty or not (greenwashing) of the claims of some organic food and non-food products

Alexander , S. ( 2019 ), “ What climate-smart agriculture means to members of the Global Alliance for climate-smart agriculture ”, Future of Food-Journal on Food Agriculture and Society , Vol.  7 No.  1 , pp.  21 - 30 , doi: 10.17170/kobra-2018122073 .

Alons , G. ( 2017 ), “ Environmental policy integration in the EU's common agricultural policy: greening or greenwashing? ”, Journal of European Public Policy , Vol.  24 No.  11 , pp.  1604 - 1622 , doi: 10.1080/13501763.2017.1334085 .

Antunes , D. , Santos , A. and Hurtado , A. ( 2015 ), “ The communication of the LCA: the need for guidelines to avoid greenwashing ”, Espacios , Vol.  36 No.  5 , p. 1 .

Bager , S.L. and Lambin , E.F. ( 2020 ), “ Sustainability strategies by companies in the global coffee sector ”, Business Strategy and the Environment , Vol.  29 No.  8 , pp.  3555 - 3570 , doi: 10.1002/bse.2596 .

Chen , Y.S. and Chang , C.H. ( 2013 ), “ Greenwash and green trust: the mediation effects of green consumer confusion and green perceived risk ”, Journal of Business Ethics , Vol.  114 No.  3 , pp.  489 - 500 , doi: 10.1007/s10551-012-1360-0 .

Cobo , M.J. , López‐Herrera , A.G. , Herrera‐Viedma , E. and Herrera , F. ( 2012 ), “ SciMAT: a new science mapping analysis software tool ”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology , Vol.  63 No.  8 , pp.  1609 - 1630 , doi: 10.1002/asi.22688 .

Dai , X. , Mao , J.H. , Fam , K.S. and Jing , M.X. ( 2011 ), “ The Investigation of Green Advertising in China -content analysis based on 1338 printed ads from 2000 to 2009 ”, Tenth Wuhan International Conference on E-Business , Vols I and Ii , pp.  681 - 688 .

DeFries , R.S. , Fanzo , J. , Mondal , P. , Remans , R. and Wood , S.A. ( 2017 ), “ Is voluntary certification of tropical agricultural commodities achieving sustainability goals for small-scale producers? A review of the evidence ”, Environmental Research Letters , Vol.  12 No.  3 , doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa625e .

Delmas , M.A. and Burbano , V.C. ( 2011 ), “ The drivers of greenwashing ”, California Management Review , Vol.  54 No.  1 , pp.  64 - 87 , doi: 10.1525/cmr.2011.54.1.64 .

Elving , W. and Steenhuis , V. ( 2014 ), “ I make conscious misleading choices? On logos on food products and the influence on skepticism and buying intention ”, Tijdschrift Voor Communicatiewetenschap , Vol.  42 No.  2 , p. 100 .

Font , X. , Elgammal , I. and Lamond , I. ( 2017 ), “ Greenhushing: the deliberate under communicating of sustainability practices by tourism businesses ”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism , Vol.  25 No.  7 , pp.  1007 - 1023 , doi: 10.1080/09669582.2016.1158829 .

Francis , C.A. ( 2004 ), “ Greening of agriculture for long-term sustainability ”, Agronomy Journal , Vol.  96 No.  5 , pp.  1211 - 1215 , doi: 10.2134/agronj2004.1211 .

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Elucidating the gap between green attitudes, intentions, and behavior through the prism of greenwashing concerns.

research paper on greenwashing

1. Introduction

2. literature review and hypotheses development, 2.1. attitude toward green products to affect buying decisions through purchase intentions: the theory of planned behavior, 2.2. unraveling the green attitude–intention–behavior gap: the influence of greenwashing apprehensions and the framework of green purchasing behavior, 3. methodology, 3.1. survey design and sample, 3.2. questionnaire, 5. discussion, 5.1. theoretical implications, 5.2. practical implications, 6. limitations and future research, author contributions, institutional review board statement, informed consent statement, data availability statement, conflicts of interest.

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Click here to enlarge figure

ConstructConstruct ItemsStandardized Estimations of
Factor Loadings
AVECRCronbach’s a
(Rausch and Kopplin 2021) [ ]
I am concerned that sustainable products are not produced of environmentally friendly materials.0.827
I am concerned that sustainable products are not manufactured under sustainable conditions.0.8120.6110.8240.82
I am concerned that the organization is only pre-tending its green image.0.705
(Kim and Choi, 2005) [ ]
I make a special effort to buy paper and plastic products that are made from recycled materials. 0.687
I have switched products for ecological reasons.
When I have a choice between two equal products, I purchase the one less harmful to other people and the environment.
I make a special effort to buy household chemicals such as detergents and cleansing solutions that are environmentally friendly.
I have avoided purchasing a product because it had potentially harmful environmental effects.
(Taylor and Todd, 1995) [ ]
I like the idea of purchasing green products0.8480.6420.8370.83
Purchasing green products is a good idea.0.750
I have a favorable attitude towards purchasing a green version of a product.0.779
(Chan, 2001) [ ]
Over the next one month, I will consider buying products because they are less polluting.0.9010.8250.9340.93
Over the next one month, I will consider switching to other brands for ecological reasons.0.934
Over the next one month, I plan to switch to a green version of a product.0.888
Familiarity with greenwashing strategies (by the authors)Please, report some greenwashing examples/cases that you are aware of
GPI0.105 *1.000
GPB0.180 *0.483 **1.000
ATTGP0.157 **0.628 **0.463 **1.000
Collinearity Statistics
Total Variance Explained
ComponentExtraction Sums of Squared Loadings
1Total% of VarianceCumulative %
ATTGP0.65 ***15.570.20 ***3.39
ATTGP × GWC−0.08 *−2.13
GPI 0.35 ***6.01
Mediation Index (LLCI; ULCI)
GPI −0.03 (−0.06; −0.00)
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Margariti, K.; Hatzithomas, L.; Boutsouki, C. Elucidating the Gap between Green Attitudes, Intentions, and Behavior through the Prism of Greenwashing Concerns. Sustainability 2024 , 16 , 5108. https://doi.org/10.3390/su16125108

Margariti K, Hatzithomas L, Boutsouki C. Elucidating the Gap between Green Attitudes, Intentions, and Behavior through the Prism of Greenwashing Concerns. Sustainability . 2024; 16(12):5108. https://doi.org/10.3390/su16125108

Margariti, Kostoula, Leonidas Hatzithomas, and Christina Boutsouki. 2024. "Elucidating the Gap between Green Attitudes, Intentions, and Behavior through the Prism of Greenwashing Concerns" Sustainability 16, no. 12: 5108. https://doi.org/10.3390/su16125108

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  • DOI: 10.15244/pjoes/184634
  • Corpus ID: 270460133

Mitigating Greenwashing in Listed Companies: A Comprehensive Study on Strengthening Integrity in ESG Disclosure and Governance

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research paper on greenwashing

Published in Polish Journal of Environmental Studies 2024

Lingjuan Tian Jiajia Niu

Practical tips to avoid greenwashing

In today's business landscape, sustainability and environmental consciousness have become paramount. However, it is crucial for businesses to avoid making misleading or exaggerated claims about their green initiatives, a practice known as greenwashing.

How can businesses navigate the complex world of sustainability claims and maintain their credibility?

To shed light on this important topic, the firm's Intellectual Property team recently hosted a multijurisdictional Lexology masterclass webinar on avoiding greenwashing and navigating sustainability claims. This article aims to highlight some of the key points discussed during the webinar, providing valuable insights for businesses seeking to maintain credibility and transparency in their sustainability efforts.

research paper on greenwashing

Navigating increased scrutiny on sustainability claims

Marketing claims relating to sustainability are increasingly observed closely worldwide. As an example, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority has become increasingly proactive, adopting AI tools to identify questionable environmental claims in digital media.

Both authorities and consumers are demanding transparency and substantiation. Businesses must therefore ensure that their claims reflect reality and are supported by comprehensive evidence.

Companies may face fines and other penalties if they breach the rules, not to mention the collateral damage to their brand.

Reputational damage of greenwashing knows no borders

Comparing the consequences across key markets, such as the UK, France, Germany, Middle East and Asia, businesses found guilty of greenwashing can face severe ramifications. Apart from heavy fines and reputational damage, in some countries, sanctions may also include imprisonment.

Further, be aware that greenwashing in one market can harm a company's reputation worldwide due to the global reach of social media and digital advertising.

Adopt a holistic approach to sustainability

The best defense against greenwashing allegations is transparency and evidence-based claims, and a holistic approach to sustainability. When formulating green claims, it is crucial to start with the evidence and ensure that it supports the claim being made.

Businesses should also consider the overall impression of their advertising and the proportionality of their green claims into the context of their overall environmental performance.

If you embrace candid, specific and transparent reporting of your green endeavors, it will help retain more sceptical customers, while also avoiding public misconception.

Some practical tips to avoid greenwashing

  • Set achievable and realistic sustainability goals.
  • Review the regulatory framework and stay abreast of changes.
  • Embrace technology to evaluate environmental impacts, as it becomes more readily available.
  • Avoid vague terms like "green" or "eco-friendly" - without qualification, these may be difficult or impossible to substantiate with the required level of evidence.
  • Present and report green endeavors in a specific and transparent manner.
  • Do not cherry-pick positive environmental aspects and be honest about the environmental impact of your business.
  • Seek legal counsel and prioritise honest communication around sustainability efforts.

Concluding remarks

Navigating the complex world of greenwashing requires the support of a strong strategy and attention to detail to ensure companies do not fall victim to a reputational crisis. Adopting a well thought out approach and seeking legal counsel where possible will prove valuable and serve as a key to an organisation's longevity.

To dive deeper into these strategies, connect with one of the authors or a member of our global team. Get started by watching the recording of our latest webinar .

This article was co-authored by Vivian Wei Cheng a patent attorney working in the offices of JurisAsia LLC, with whom Gowling WLG has an exclusive association.

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What Is Greenwashing and How Can Companies Prevent It?

As the impacts of climate change become more severe and widespread, it’s clear that immediate action is needed to secure a sustainable future. to this end, many companies are working to make their operations more sustainable. investors, too, are increasingly looking to back companies with strong environmental, social and governance (esg) strategies.  .

As a result, many companies have begun to publicly declare their ESG strategies to illustrate a commitment to greater sustainability,  among other factors . However, if such strategies aren’t backed up by solid, auditable data and acted upon in a meaningful way, then they are useless.   

Making empty or misleading statements about the sustainability of a company’s products or services (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is known as “greenwashing.” Often, companies may label their products as being sustainable just for the sake of marketing. Or greenwashing can occur when communication around the sustainability of products or services isn’t clear or well-defined.  

In a  podcast  discussing greenwashing ,  Sphera Chief Product Officer Mike Zamis said  that greenwashing can happen because: “There are no real rules around ESG. There’s pretty deep flexibility in some of those [disclosure] frameworks, and there are competing frameworks. There’s a real chance for companies to pick and choose what ESG means to them.”   

Why Greenwashing Is a Concern for Companies, Consumers and the Planet

Numerous high-profile greenwashing scandals have contributed to decreased consumer trust in companies’ ESG commitments. This lack of trust is preventing the widespread adoption of sustainable behaviors among consumers, as Sphera’s recent  report on green consumerism  shows. Also contributing to decreased consumer trust is the lack of access to companies’ sustainability information.   

But, even when companies are forthcoming about their ESG commitments, consumers are skeptical.  Sensu’s  50 Shades of Greenwashing report  describes the effects of greenwashing and how it has negatively impacted consumer trust. According to the report, 30% of people expect ESG claims to have been exaggerated, and “71% don’t think that the claim is likely to have been verified or checked by an independent expert or regulator.” Further, “only 23% of the public take ESG claims at face value,” while 14% of people said they usually disbelieve these claims.

Unsurprisingly, eroding consumer trust in businesses’ ESG commitments has a negative effect on companies’ bottom lines. According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review,  greenwashing harms a brand’s reputation and consumer brand loyalty , which in turn decreases the likelihood that consumers will make repeat purchases from a brand or choose to buy from them at all.   

And as the window to make meaningful progress to prevent the worst effects of climate change narrows, greenwashing isn’t helping to move the needle in the right direction. At COP27 in November 2022, the U.N.’s High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities released  a report on greenwashing in net-zero pledges .   

Former Canadian Minister Catherine Mckenna, chairman of the High-Level Expert Group, said that the “planet cannot afford delays, excuses, or more greenwashing.” The report recommended that companies embrace greater transparency and accountability in net-zero pledges, as well as make sure that their pledges are detailed and concrete.  

How to Prevent Greenwashing

Standardized ESG metrics and regulations could help create a consistent baseline for ESG reporting, reducing the risk of greenwashing in the marketplace. In addition,   marketing and product departments need to get on the same page and communicate the sustainability of their products and services honestly and transparently with their consumers and investors to build trust in the long term.    

This can be achieved by:  

  • Ensuring  ESG professionals such as a vice president  of sustainability or a corporate sustainability officer oversee and manage ESG data collection, verification and reporting.  
  • Bringing in third-party auditors to verify data.  
  • Increasing the frequency of ESG data collection, monitoring and reporting.

By implementing the right teams and strategies, companies can prevent greenwashing and ensure greater clarity and credibility in their ESG strategies. ESG can’t just be a marketing tool; it must be embedded into a company’s operations and include buy-in from company leadership and other stakeholders.  

After all, the stakes couldn’t be higher—with the future of our planet on the line, companies have an important role to play in transitioning to a net-zero world. As a result, it’s imperative that net-zero pledges and ESG strategies lead to meaningful change and don’t just amount to empty promises.  

To learn more about consumer attitudes and why it’s important for companies to avoid greenwashing,  read our report .

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ESG Today

Government / Investors / Regulators / Sustainable Finance

Swiss Government Allows Financial Sector to Self-Regulate Greenwashing Prevention

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Switzerland’s Federal Council announced today that it will hold off on regulating greenwashing in the financial sector, allowing instead for the industry to monitor itself, following progress made by the sector’s associations in developing and implementing self-regulatory provisions.

The decision follows the release in December 2022 of a paper by the Swiss Federal Council outlining its position on the prevention of greenwashing, or the risk of having a financial product falsely or misleadingly portrayed as having sustainable characteristics. Measures outlined in the Council’s greenwashing prevention position included requiring financial products that feature a sustainability label to pursue at least one investment objective, in addition to their financial goals, to align with one or more specific sustainability goals, or to contribute to the achievement of specific sustainability goals, and for product documentation to specify which of these characteristics, or combination of characteristics applied.

research paper on greenwashing

The Council’s proposals also included transparency rules, including requiring financial service providers offering sustainable investment products to describe their sustainability approach, and how the approach is achieved and measured, as well as regular reporting on the defined sustainability goals, along with verification by an independent third party.

In October 2023, the Swiss Federal Department of Finance (FDF) announced plans to introduce regulations this year to implement its position on greenwashing, but added that it will hold off on its regulatory efforts if the financial industry presents a self-regulation solution that meets the Council’s position.

Following the FDF’s October announcement, the Asset Management Association Switzerland (AMAS), the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) and the Swiss Insurance Association (SIA) released a statement indicating that they would develop the required self-regulation, stating that they “remain convinced that self-regulation is an effective and, compared to principle-based regulation, more flexible instrument to avoid greenwashing.”

In its update today, the Council said that it has “taken note” of the new self-regulatory provisions adopted by the finance associations, noting:

“In particular, they implement requirements for the definition of sustainable investment objectives, the description of the sustainability approaches applied, accountability in this regard and the audit of implementation by an independent third party.”

The Council did highlight some remaining “unresolved issues,” however, including compliance within the provisions by applying EU law, and regarding permissible reference framework for sustainability targets and enforceability.

Based on the progress, the Council stated that “is refraining from introducing state regulation to combat greenwashing in the financial sector at this time,” while instructing the FDF to re-evaluate once the EU publishes potential amendments to its Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR).

In a joint statement released following the Council’s announcement, finance associations AMAS, SBA and SIA welcomed the decision, reiterating their position that considers “self-regulation to be the most suitable instrument for avoiding greenwashing.”

Adrian Schatzmann, CEO of the AMAS, said:

“With the present AMAS self-regulation on sustainability, a quality step has been taken in key areas that benefits all stakeholders: investors, the Swiss asset management industry and the Swiss financial centre as a whole. The preceding process is an excellent example of constructive and targeted dialogue between the federal government and the private sector.”

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