‘Greenwashing’ is misleading or deceptive publicity from an organisation that aims to present an environmentally responsible public image. Here are 5 ways to recognise and beat it, and pointers on determining if a brand is as sustainable as it makes out to be.

Greenwashing is everywhere

Unfortunately, greenwashing has become more prevalent as businesses feel increasing pressure to act more sustainably and consider their corporate social responsibility. Many companies and brands are claiming to be, or have products that are, sustainable, eco-friendly, ethical or green without any evidence or action to back this up.

Greenwashing is a problem not just for consumers, but also for environmentally responsible businesses making genuine claims. It’s also an issue for businesses that want to make sustainable purchases from their suppliers.

A 2022 survey by the ACCC found over half of businesses reviewed were making misleading environmental or sustainability claims. As a result, in December 2023 the ACCC published a guide for businesses making environmental claims (read more here). They also provide guidance for consumers on how to judge valid environmental and sustainability claims.

1. Learn how to spot greenwashing

If you want to make responsible purchasing decisions at home or work (or promote your own products and services without greenwashing), here are a few things to look out for…

  • Vague language – words that sound good but have no solid meaning (like green, sustainable, natural, farm fresh, planet-friendly) or are open to interpretation (like ‘reusable’ – how many times can it be reused?)
  • General visual symbols – nice-looking environmental/ethical graphics like leaves, hearts, and animals (unless accompanied by environmental accreditation symbols awarded by recognised organisations)
  • Misleading data – statistics that sound impressive but can’t be verified, or percentages that suggest something is better than it is (e.g. “now with 50% more recycled content” – 50% more than what? It may have gone up from 2% to 3%!)
  • Irrelevant claims – drawing attention to environmental attributes of one small aspect of a product that is otherwise unsustainable (such as recyclable packaging on a product that is harmful to the environment or produced unethically)
  • Omissions and small print – omitting information about negative impacts, or hiding important information in disclaimers or obscure locations (e.g. claiming to be 100% biodegradable, with the small print saying this happens over a very long time period)
  • False claims – saying something untrue, such as that a product is fully recyclable when it won’t be accepted at recycling stations. Or, claiming to have low emissions or be carbon neutral, with no data to prove this.
Example of greenwashing text and imagery

Greenwashing makes it all sound so lovely…

2. Analyse and question environmental claims

Next time you see an advertisement, inspect a product label, or read about environmental credentials on a corporate website, try this…

If you see this claim… Ask yourself…
100% compostable Are there facilities to compost it at home or in the community, or is it more likely to end up in landfill?
Recyclable How much of it can be recycled? How easy is it to separate the different components or materials for recycling? Are facilities available to collect and recycle it?
Made of recycled materials How much is recycled content and how much is original virgin material?
Natural, organic Are there certifications or verifications attached to these claims? Do they explain how the materials or processes are classified as natural or organic? (e.g. no chemicals, additives or processing)
Eco-friendly, green, or sustainable How and why is it eco-friendly or sustainable? Specifically, what makes it these things? What do these vague terms mean in relation to the brand?
Supporting environmental or social causes To what extent are they supporting the cause? How – money, time, advocacy, etc? What are they doing about their own impact?
Using environmental imagery like leaves, trees, animals, the colour green Do the aesthetics match the actions and attributes of the brand? Just because it looks natural, doesn’t mean it is!
Illustration - concept of greenwashing research

Greenwashing vs green marketing

Claiming to be green isn’t always a red flag, but it’s important to dig a little deeper and discover if a company or product is as green as it claims. If there’s no clear evidence to support an environmental claim, that could be a prime example of greenwashing. Where misleading statements breach consumer laws there can be significant penalties for companies.

However, green marketing – promoting the environmental benefits of a brand or product – is perfectly okay if it’s backed by facts and does not misdirect people.

Can you tell the difference between greenwashing and green marketing?

Green marketing aims to influence perceptions of a company or brand based on its environmental impact and ESG commitments. But greenwashing is green marketing done wrong – intentionally or unintentionally – when vague, unsubstantiated or misleading claims misdirect people’s perceptions. To tell the difference, take a look at these examples…

Greenwashing Green marketing
“We’re proud to be a green company, implementing energy-efficient processes throughout our operations” “We’re integrating energy-efficient practises throughout our operations, including LED lighting upgrades, optimised heating and cooling systems, and integrating solar panels to power our facilities.”
“Our eco-friendly products are designed with the environment in mind, reducing our carbon footprint every step of the way” “Our company is committed to sustainability, evidenced by our Green Star certified buildings, 90% renewable energy for our operations, and carbon-neutral shipping practices.”
“Our products are Earth-friendly and kind to the planet!” “Our products are made from 80% recycled content or from fully renewable materials.”
“Now with 60% more recycled content and greener packaging” “We use 100% post-consumer recycled materials in our packaging to minimise waste and environmental impact.”
“Responsibly sourced sustainable seafood” “Our seafood is sustainably sourced, meeting the MSC standard for responsible fisheries. We are also accredited by Friend of the Sea and are a member of the Dolphin Safe program.”

3. Research facts and organisations behind claims

How can you determine if a business is making valid environmental claims? Do some research!

Read up on their business values

Looking at the values a business holds, and the impact it has on the environment and community, is a good way to see if it’s a business you want to support.

An organisation’s ‘About us’ web page is a good place to start when trying to get an idea of what the organisation emphasises or values (or at least aims to). Bear in mind these are just words! However, it’s still a good way to gauge their strategic direction and get a feel for the organisation’s culture, values, aims and priorities.

Most importantly, see if they describe any initiatives or specific actions they are taking to back up what they say they care about – especially if it’s what you care about too.

Fact check actions against claims

It’s all well and good to have an organisation that says it values all these great things – but how can you tell if they are doing anything about them?

Exploring a company’s reports and reading up on their actions and progress helps you spot greenwashing. You can see for yourself if their actions stack up against their claims. Most medium to large organisations publish reports about their operations – annual financial reports, and often dedicated environmental or sustainability reports. To find their latest reports, look on their website’s ‘about’ section or search online for the term ‘sustainability report’ with the company’s name.

Climate reporting is mandatory for large organisations of a certain size as of July 2024, with phased deadlines after that for companies of 100 employees or more (see the Treasury policy statement).

Once you’ve found the company’s report/s, look closely at the data. Transparent companies show metrics and performance data and set targets for improvements. If they don’t meet their targets, they should say so, and preferably explain why.

Businesses must be transparent and accessible when providing information to consumers and other stakeholders. Doing so increases their brand reputation and trust. If they follow a sustainability reporting framework, it’s easier to see how transparent a company is, and compare it to others.

Illustration of woman looking at sustainability report on laptop computer

Understand sustainability reporting frameworks

Organisations – especially larger ones – use external reporting frameworks to measure, manage, and communicate their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. Sustainability reporting frameworks, like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), provide guidelines for businesses to report on their sustainability initiatives, progress, and impacts in a standardised and transparent way.

  • The GRI offers comprehensive guidelines for reporting on a wide range of sustainability indicators, allowing companies to disclose their operations’ economic, environmental, and social impacts transparently. It allows for industry-specific targets, as well as broad inter-industry targets. Find out more about the GRI
  • The Carbon Disclosure Project helps businesses to measure and manage their risks and opportunities on climate change, water security and deforestation. Find out more about the CDP
  • The SASB provides industry-specific standards for disclosing financial sustainability information, facilitating better comparability, and understanding of ESG performance across various sectors. It allows businesses to communicate their sustainability efforts effectively, build trust with stakeholders, and drive positive environmental and social outcomes. Find out more about the SASB

Dig a little deeper

Looking at a company’s reports and marketing can be a minefield to navigate. It’s often hard to find whether the whole organisation is being truly sustainable and creating positive impacts.

The subject gets more complicated when businesses do good things – and make it well known that they target a range of environmental and social issues – but are also part of the problem they say they’re trying to improve.

How do we weigh this up? Let’s look at an example…

Case Study: Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola provides an extensive and detailed sustainability report that utilises multiple sustainability reporting frameworks. If you’re interested you can read it here: Coca Cola Sustainability Report.

Their key sustainability goals include water leadership, packaging, climate, and sustainable agriculture. They aim to make 100% of their packaging recyclable globally by 2025, with a high percentage already being recyclable. They also are reducing their emissions, intending to achieve net zero by 2050. Currently, only a quarter of their bottles are made from recycled plastic, but they’re aiming for 50% by 2030.

The Coca-Cola Foundation contributes large amounts of money ($94.8M in 2022) to various organisations that align with their sustainability goals. Sounds good, right?


They were one of the top global corporate polluters of 2023, and 11% of branded plastic pollution was from The Coca-Cola Company. Their target of 25% refillable or returnable bottles by 2030 is not particularly ambitious when you consider that 75% won’t be. That 75% may be recyclable, but how many will actually be recycled?

If you look deeper into the report data you’ll see that only 9% of packaging is refillable glass bottles. Yet a recent survey of Coca-Cola ads revealed over half of their advertising showed nostalgic glass Coke bottles instead of the plastic bottles that are mostly sold. Removing focus from products contributing to global plastic pollution could be considered greenwashing. Read more here:

It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? They’re ‘doing good’ while polluting the planet.

Illustration showing the history of Coca Cola bottles

Watch the video Uncovering Fact vs Fiction on Coke’s Iconic Bottle by The Story of Stuff Project, which alleges Coca-Cola’s advertising amounts to greenwashing.

Now we’re not saying to boycott Coca-Cola. This example highlights the importance of digging a little deeper. It is wise to be a bit suspicious of brands (especially large multinationals) as this allows you to be more critical and figure out for yourself what you’re willing to support (or not). All data should be seen in a wider context.

4. Check for environmental  accreditations

Self-reporting environmental data is one thing, but formally verified data is better. That’s where accreditations come in. They are industry-recognised verifications or certifications relating to a product, service or organisation. Accreditations may relate to environmental, social, safety, quality, procedural, country of origin or other attributes.

Getting accredited usually involves a rigorous verification process, which may include auditing, testing, reviewing documentation or other relevant checks and measures. There’s usually a cost involved for this. If successful, the company or brand earns the right to display the accreditation mark and use it in their marketing.

One thing to bear in mind is that small or micro businesses might not have the money or resources to get accredited. This does not mean they are not as sustainable as larger companies. It just means they can’t afford to prove it or display a label saying so!

Which accreditations matter?

Different industries have different accreditations and certifications, so read up on the industry and decide which certifications are most applicable and trustworthy. Some accreditations are international, while others apply in Australia only. Australian businesses that export to overseas markets should research accreditations for the countries they trade with.

Common (trustworthy) certifications include:

You can read about a couple of these below, and check out more here: A Guide to Sustainability Certifications. See also this comprehensive list of eco-labels in Australia.

Australian Certified Organic - ACO logo
Certified B Corp
Climate Active
Cradle-to-Cradle certified logo
Global Green Tag
Green Star
Oeko Tex
Made Safe
Rainforest Alliance

B Corp certification

If we had to nominate a favourite certification, this would be it! B-Corp certified organisations are for-profit businesses that pursue a ‘social good’. The certification measures their entire social and environmental impact.

B Corp certification covers a range of industries and businesses. It’s one of the most recognised ESG (environmental, social and governance) certifications. Businesses must go through an independent body to do a B Impact assessment, which evaluates impact across five areas: governance, community, environment, customers and workers.

Businesses must achieve at least 80 points out of a possible 250+. Although this sounds easily achievable, it’s quite a difficult process. The median score of Australian and New Zealand organisations completing this process is 50-55, and B Corps average a score of 96. This means there are many areas businesses can work on – they must be really switched on when it comes to their actions and impact.

Read more about B-Corps here:

The UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or ‘global goals’ as they’re otherwise known, were created by the United Nations to advance peace and prosperity for people and the planet. The goals themselves are quite broad, with specific targets and indicators under each.

The SDGs, although well-known and important, don’t require businesses to go through a review process to gain certification or display graphics. Businesses can self-elect to say which SDGs they are working on. This is a good way for small businesses to highlight their sustainability actions and purpose, as they may not have the resources to go through a bigger process of getting accredited. But be wary that some organisations may merely pay lip service to the SDGs without focusing on creating a positive impact.

In saying this, the SDGs are still a good way to see what a business prioritises. They’re also a great resource for understanding different areas of sustainability. Just make sure to read more about a business’ actions in contributing to the goals they specify.

Another note: it may seem counterintuitive, but as a business it’s better to choose fewer SDGs, focusing on those the business contributes to directly. Listing numerous SDGs may suggest a superficial approach, mentioning SDGs merely for the sake of it. Choosing 1-4 SDGs that a business genuinely advances or contributes to conveys a clearer and more impactful message about its sustainability efforts.

5. Be a catalyst for change

Finally, if you want to encourage an organisation to address a specific issue or incorporate better sustainability initiatives and actions, why not ask them to? Reaching out to them, highlighting a specific action that you would like to see improved, is a good way to make your opinion known.

For example, let’s say you notice that an ‘eco-conscious’ brand is delivering products to you wrapped in plastic. Contact them via email, website contact form, or social media, and say something like this:


“Hey, I really like that your brand prioritises sustainability. I like that it’s a core value of yours, and that’s why I chose to purchase your product. But I noticed that your eco-brand comes wrapped in plastic in a cardboard container. Is there a way of cutting out the plastic in this?

Changing your packaging to something that produces less waste and is environmentally friendly is a great way to highlight your commitment to sustainability. And it will make me feel better about purchasing from you.”

Or if the brand is significantly lacking in sustainability action, you could try to goad them into it:

“Sustainability is a core value of mine, and I want to be able to reflect that in my purchasing decisions. I think there are many things you could do to consider the environment and consumers more deeply. Would you consider …. (industry specific thing that you think they could do instead of what they currently do; or you could just say you want to see them trying to be more sustainable)?

There’s a changing shift to prioritise more sustainable actions and businesses, and if you’re not willing to put in the effort, then I’m not willing to purchase from you anymore.”

Feel free to make up your own words, or tailor these responses as required.

When you see greenwashing, call it out!

If you come across a brand or company that is greenwashing by making false or misleading claims, the first step is to contact the business and let them know, as suggested above. However, if they don’t resolve your issue, you can report them to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Organisations large and small have been caught greenwashing after being called out by activists, non-profits, competitors, industry bodies or consumers (see these greenwashing examples).

Illustration showing person deciding which product to buy surrounded by eco labels

In summary

As you have probably gathered, greenwashing, green marketing and sustainability accreditation is a complex area that can be difficult to navigate. Some businesses are trying to do good, but don’t have the skills and resources to change, or are naive about how to communicate their eco credentials. Meanwhile, certain big businesses justify their negative impacts by focusing attention on sustainable actions via greenwashing. And many businesses are sticking with the status quo, unsure how best to reach the increasing numbers of consumers and corporate buyers demanding sustainable products and services.

Of course, it’s hard to generalise. Jumping to assumptions can hinder our ability to assess an organisation’s impact accurately, and may obscure the nuances of their sustainability efforts. That’s why it’s important to do your due diligence, understand the issues, and learn how to spot greenwashing.

So, how do you combat greenwashing? Here’s a reminder of the five ways…

  1. Learn how to spot greenwashing – look for unsubstantiated or misleading info
  2. Analyse environmental claims – ask questions and find out what’s behind them
  3. Research brands/organisations – check their values, reports and actions
  4. Look out for accreditations – see which credentials or eco-labels matter to you
  5. Be a catalyst for change – engage with brands, report greenwashing, and ask companies to improve.

In other words, ask questions, stay curious, do your research and be willing to identify and call out misleading claims. That way, you’re more likely to find brands and suppliers that align with your values. As a result, you may well encourage more and more businesses to engage in responsible green marketing.

Article researched and written by Ashley Edgar, edited by Carolyn King