Greenwashing is a tactic employed by companies to try and deceive people into thinking their product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is. This takes advantage of customers, especially environmentally conscious buyers. Greenwashing usually occurs on packaging or advertisement campaigns.
Greenwashed statements in an advertisement are often difficult to confirm, seem “too good to be true”, and use buzzwords such as “biodegradable”, “eco-friendly”, or “certified green”.
This is often augmented with pleasing green or blue imagery depicting the product in a clean, natural setting.
According to Netto De Freitas et. al, there are 2 categories of greenwashing:
Executional and Claim greenwashing
De Freitas notes that executional greenwashing “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)”.
These design elements can invoke a misleading sense of the brand’s greenness by portraying the company as environmentally oriented.
Claim greenwashing, as described by De Freitas, is the use of “textual arguments that explicitly or implicitly refer to the ecological benefits of a product or service to create a misleading environmental claim.”
Claim greenwashing is usually intentional, while it is possible to do executional greenwashing unintentionally. Graphic design pertains mostly to executional greenwashing, but can also amplify the message delivered in claim greenwashing.
Emphasis and Claim Greenwashing
In both graphic design and claim greenwashing, emphasis must be placed deliberately on the most important pieces of information. This aspect of graphic design is seen prevalently on movie posters.
On a movie poster, a list of the supporting crew is not usually made into the textual focus of the piece—the movie’s title and the lead actors are usually the biggest text on the image. Emphasis must be used on important areas to draw attention to them first.
This can be used with claim greenwashing to draw attention to certain pieces of information, usually statistics or labels, that seem like proof that a product is environmentally friendly or natural.
Emphasis is demonstrated below on a modified version of the JAWS poster. The JAWS poster is a well known example of emphasis with its large red text and iconic composition. I decided to redesign it and make it as confusing as possible by breaking up its composition and removing the text contrast. The modified version, now less concise, shows how much of an impact emphasis alone has on the interpretation of a graphic.
Color AND EXECUTIONAL GREENWASHING
Color choice also plays a large role in advertising. Greenwashing often involves literally using green on an image to make it seem more environmentally friendly. An example below is a greenwashed Coca Cola advertisement for their environmentally friendly "eCoca Cola".
I created a red version of the same advertisement in an attempt to bring the soda can back to the brand's usual red color. The leaf motif, monkey, and symbols on the can are the same, but the image feels less "naturey"
Greenwashed products often use a lot of intentional executional greenwashing in their graphic design.
For example, Coke put out a graphic to advertise their eCoca Cola. Here are some of its design elements that fall under executional greenwashing:
- A clear green gradient background (impact demonstrated in the image above)
- Font sporting leaves instead of a dot over the i’s
- An image of a monkey
- Stamps on the packaging showing support from Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.
The truth behind ecoca cola
The image practically exudes “nature”. Coke markets eCoca Cola as a healthier alternative to normal Coke. The company states that eCoca Cola contains 35% less sugar due to the use of stevia, a plant extract, instead of sugar. At face level, this looks like a great improvement—a significant reduction in the amount of sugar in the soda will make it healthier. At least, that’s what Coke wants you to think.
Despite the green, natural imagery, eCoca Cola isn’t healthy. The problem with the “new wondrous ‘healthy’ Coke alternative is that removing 10 teaspoons of sugar from a 600 ml bottle, leaves 20 teaspoons of sugar still in there” (Whole People).
Claim greenwashing is used to omit information on sugar levels, while executional greenwashing is used to make the product seem healthier than it actually is by making the viewer feel that eCoca Cola is “natural”.
Putting it Together
Using both executional and claim greenwashing, we can create a fake greenwashed advertisement. Here are the design elements I could include in a greenwashed graphic:
- Sans-serif fonts
- Blue and green colors
- Emphasis used to accent claim greenwashing
- Imagery of leaves
I found an image of a Nestle water bottle online and created two different advertisement graphics. They both contain similar text and both are trying to sell the product as environmentally friendly. The only differences are in what content is highlighted, and how that content is presented. The image on the right looks more appealing due to its use of natural colors, leafy graphics, ease of reading, and appealing statistics. “Insignificant” information is in a smaller font and less noticeable than what the company wants you to see. Design choices, executional greenwashing, and portrayal of claim greenwashing are key in advertising.
Greenwashing is meant to evoke a misleading sense of environmental consciousness. Design choices in graphics can influence how effective the advertisement is at conveying "greenness". When evaluating products to buy, try to see past the leafy, natural looking packaging and evaluate the claims presented. Ignore the picture of the forest and waterfall and see how much plastic is actually used. Are there better alternatives to this product?
As consumers, we can influence how companies behave. If we choose not to support companies that use greenwashing, we can reduce misinformation and pollution.
De Freitas Netto, Sebastião Vieira, et al. “Concepts and Forms of Greenwashing: A Systematic Review.” Environmental Sciences Europe, vol. 32, no. 1, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-020-0300-3.
Ochoa, Fabiana Negrin, and Dieter Holger. “How to Tell If a 'Sustainable' Business Is 'Greenwashing'.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 10 Oct. 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-tell-if-a-sustainable-business-is-greenwashing-11602342001.
“The Troubling Evolution of Corporate Greenwashing.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Aug. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies.
“What Is Greenwashing?” Whole People, 31 Dec. 2020, wholepeople.com/what-is-greenwashing.
Xiao, Zengrui, et al. “Greenwash, Moral Decoupling, and Brand Loyalty.” Social Behavior and Personality: an International Journal, vol. 49, no. 4, 2021, pp. 1–8., https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.10038.
Hsiao, Emma. Modified Coca cola Advertisement, 17, November 2021.
Hsiao, Emma. Modified JAWS poster, 17, November 2021.
Hsiao, Emma. Satirical Nestle Advertisement, 27 October 2021.