Greenwashing: When Cultural (In)Competence Takes Over Marketing

You’re navigating the supermarket aisles, looking for your regular laundry powder when, out of the blue, a massive recycled-paper mole stops you (and your clunky cart) dead in your tracks. 

Apparently, the two-centuries-old detergent brand your mom used to buy (and complain about) has launched a new line of no-plastic, heavy-metal-free, zero-waste laundry capsules, and your supermarket is promoting them big time with cleverly arranged product islands.

As the supermarket manager expected, the impressive displays tickle your curiosity. You come closer. What you see surprises you… and not in a bad way. 

Even you, who has never had an aesthetically trained eye, have to admit that the capsule’s sleek envelope looks promising: minimalistic design, recycled paper, green ink, and a label packed with important-looking logos. Certification this, certification that; it’s the first time you see those logos, but your brain doesn’t really care. 

You’re sold.

Although you’re not the biggest fan of the unimpressive laundry power you currently use, years ago you made the conscious decision to switch to it in hopes of avoiding plastic containers. The waste trail that those weirdly-shaped detergent bottles leave is just unbelievable.  You don’t want to take part in that. 

And now, right in front of your eyes lies an exciting alternative.

The new capsules are promising the moon and the sky: clean and fresh clothes, an eco-friendly package, and, of course, a “proprietary” formula made with natural substances and zero dangerous chemicals. Plus, the price fits your budget. The capsules fly into your cart. 

You leave the laundry aisle, satisfied with your conscious choices and feeling good for putting the sake of the planet first.  You did the right thing.

Or so you’ve been led to believe.

READ: Is All Copywriting Manipulative?

Later on, when you dig deeper into the specs of your new laundry capsules, you soon realize the grandiose eco-friendly claims and fancy certifications proudly displayed on the product’s label are nothing but fluffy language. Vagueness in a bottle.

A quick Google search reveals a harsh and ugly truth: finding hard evidence that back up the company’s sustainability claims is mission impossible. 

Soon, the realization hits: once again, you’ve been greenwashed. 


What is Greenwashing IN small-business MARKETING?

This unceremonious term was coined in 1986 by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe a new and disturbing behavior adopted by some corporations: the practice of making bold sustainability claims (that 90% of the time, could not be properly backed up) to divert the public’s attention from the damaging environmental practices given companies had. 

Unfortunately for us, consumers, in 2022 Westerveld’s term remains well and alive. 

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines greenwashing as “expressions of environmentalist concerns, especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities”. Unfortunately, this definition barely touches the core of the issue. This is why we prefer Leyla Acaroglu’s take: Greenwashing is “when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that (their brand) is sustainable.”

In other words, greenwashing happens whenever a company decides to market and advertise a product or service as if it were sustainable and good for the environment when this is not the case. A company that follows such practices is trying to manipulate consumers to buy products or services by making them believe said products won’t damage the environment or, in some daring cases, that the purchase actually helps the planet.

READ: 3 Ways Manipulative Copywriting Shows Up In Your Marketing Strategy

Naturally, when consumers realize they have fallen into this unethical marketing trap, they feel annoyed, deceived, and even scammed. As a Harvard Business Review report has shown, up to 75% of US-based consumers prefer to buy sustainable products. Under these circumstances, greenwashing will only end up doing more harm than good to any given company. 

And yet, despite all this data, in 2022 greenwashing is still a thing. As the 2022 Earth Day report shows, from 2015 to 2022 no less than thirty companies were accused of “not being as environmentally friendly as they advertised.” *gasps in shock* 

How is this possible? If studies have shown that buyers not only are more selective when it comes to deciding where to spend their hard-earned money but also don’t react well to false sustainability claims, how is it possible that companies are still considering greenwashing as a valuable marketing trend? 

Because it’s easier than launching a truly sustainable venture. Although consumers want to buy from sustainable brands (and are even willing to pay a higher price point for such products), unfortunately, there’s no industry-encompassing standard of what’s sustainable and what isn’t.

This ‘golden rule’ varies from one industry to another. What is considered sustainable in fashion doesn’t necessarily apply to other industries, such as food or electronics. There is no general policy or official regulations regarding sustainability claims.

In addition to that, the lack of a clear policy around what’s sustainable and what isn’t shifts all the responsibility to consumers.  Essentially, buyers who are interested in supporting brands that are genuinely sustainable have to do a fair lot of research; they have to question the brand and see if their “sustainable” story stands. Since this demands a massive effort, it’s unsurprising that customers are not willing to go through that rabbit hole.

Brands that greenwash know this, which is why they are incredibly vague when it comes to answering customers’ questions. And some of them don’t even bother.

So, why do companies opt to greenwash instead of adopting solid sustainability practices? The short answer: because it is easier than implementing truly sustainable practices.

“Launching a geinely sustainable brand is hard and very, very expensive. In my case,  I’ve spent almost six months researching”

As research has shown, consumers are willing to pay more if a product is sustainable, and this fact hasn’t escaped the attention of brands. In their quest to adjust to the market’s needs, both big brands and small businesses tend to forget that sustainability is not something that can be achieved with an overnight branding overhaul. 

READ: 5 Reasons Why A Liberatory & Culturally Competent Marketing Strategy Can Help Boost Your Brand

Although it’s true that in today’s landscape a brand’s greenwashing efforts are not as cynical as they were back in the ’80s (Do you remember Chevron’s  “The People Do” campaign? *facepalms*), current brands still try to get away with greenwashing. 

How? By greenwashing in a micro, almost imperceptible way. 

Here are 3 examples that illustrate this “subtle” trend. 

Three examples of “subtle” greenwashing.

Red Lobster’s unsustainable sourcing practices.

If you’ve ever been to a Red Lobster branch, you’re probably aware that the chain restaurant is committed to serving “Seafood with Standards”. The company has claimed that all its catches are traceable, sustainable, and responsible. 

However, quite recently, a group of consumers has challenged those claims. In June 2021, a class action complaint was filed against the popular restaurant, alleging that its shrimps and Maine lobsters are not sourced sustainably and ethically, as the company claims in its menus, website, and other marketing materials. 

The accusing party claims that Red Lobster sources their shrimp from industrial shrimp farms located in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and China, which don’t follow ethical and humane fishing standards. Although the class action is still unresolved, the company has recently filed a reply in their lawsuit, challenging the plaintiffs’ lack of standing to plead their claims.

Oatly exaggerating expert claims.

In 2021, the plant-based milk company Oatly ran an ad in a London magazine, where they claimed that “climate experts say cutting dairy and meat products from our diets is the single biggest lifestyle change we can make to reduce our environmental impact.”

The problem? According to the U.K’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) inquiry, those “expert claims” were only a partial claim from an individual expert. Oatly took the liberty to slightly modify the quotation, overstating the implications of it with the purpose of backing up its marketing message. 

Earth Rated leaving out important information. 

On the 22nd of April, Earth Rated posted a company blog inviting readers to buy one of their star products: the compostable Dog Poop bags. However, the company forgot to mention that it is not safe to compost dog poop at home. If a dog owner wants to compost his dog’s poop, he has to find a municipal facility that accepts this kind of waste. 

The problem? Currently, there are no US composting facilities that accept dog poop, and thus this constitutes a case of deceptive advertising. 

Although these 3 examples may look minimal or irrelevant to a consumer who isn’t used to doing deep research on a given brand’s sustainability claims, one fact remains: by deliberately leaving behind key pieces of information, these brands fell short of sustainable standards and culturally competent and feminist marketing. 

The real damage of greenwashing: some consequences

Although the three previous examples of over-exaggerating expert claims, or omitting key information about the usability of a product, may not seem like the worst marketing crime ever committed (and they certainly pale a bit when you consider them alongside the bold and poignantly false “eco-friendly” claims that certain gas and oil companies made in the 80s), one fact remains: they were made attempting to manipulate consumer’s decisions. 

And, as it always happens in every scam story, when consumers realize they’ve been duped, trust disappears into thin air. From that point on, consumers will feel wary of your brand. As any savvy marketer would confirm, once you lose your crowds’ know, like, and trust, gaining it back is unbelievably hard. 

READ: 5 Reasons to Use Human-Centered Marketing

In addition to that, since companies have been using greenwashed campaigns to a certain extent since sustainability and eco-friendly products became “a thing” in the early 90s, customers are starting to gradually become more skeptical of products that market themselves as green and sustainable. 

This single consequence highlights one of the worst and most paradoxical side-effects of greenwashing: because of all the manipulative marketing tactics, individuals who are trying to build a genuinely sustainable brand are finding it more and more challenging to attract eyeballs and the appropriate attention to their projects

It’s like a vicious cycle. A certain company launches a product through a greenwashed campaign. Consumers take notice and become more skeptical and selective. Then, when a truly sustainable company breaks into the scene, consumers eye it with suspicion and hesitancy. Now, that’s what we would call a challenge. 

So, what would be a good solution to that? How can new brands avoid the greenwashing trap while cultivating much-needed relationships? 

Well, with some cultural competence added into the mix, of course! 

What’s the relationship between sustainability, cultural competence, and greenwashing?

Glad you’ve asked!

So far, we have spoken about greenwashing —its definition and why brands engage in this manipulative marketing practice. We’ve also discussed three examples of “subtle” (but still problematic) greenwashing examples, and we’ve concluded that, in the long run, this manipulative marketing practice only ends up damaging legitimate, sustainable brands.

Now, you might be wondering what cultural competence has to do with any of that. 

Unsurprisingly, the answer to that has to do with intentions. If you think about the reason why brands greenwash (or follow culturally incompetent marketing trends), you’ll soon realize they do it because they want to make a profit at all costs, even if this means lying to their customers while pretending to be something they are not. Their intentions, thus, are misaligned. 

Does this mean that brands who follow coercive marketing tactics are inherently unethical and only want to take advantage of a market trend? Not necessarily. In most cases, what happens is that leadership and product development teams don’t have the necessary skills or awareness to connect with genuine customer needs. 

Or, in other words, these brands lack cultural competence. 

So, why do companies opt to greenwash instead of adopting solid sustainability practices? No one can answer this better than Kristina M., says Kristina M., founder of Sandriya Lingerie and The Story of Clothes, a sustainable fashion blog.

READ: What is Liberatory & Culturally Competent Marketng?

“The way the fashion industry currently works by default is very, very unsustainable. Although that’s slowly changing, brands still have to go against the current to do things differently. For large companies especially, that can mean extra costs that don’t immediately translate into a profitable return for shareholders, which can be hard to put through and justify. Unfortunately, though, that’s what’s needed for real change to happen”.

As you can see, going all-in for sustainability is something that can’t be achieved overnight: careful planning and a strategic mindset are a must.

So, what can you do as a small (and culturally competent) business owner to avoid the common traps of oppressive marketing?

Don’t fall into the assumption trap!

As you have probably realized by now, every oppressive marketing tactic, from greenwashing to fat-shaming, has one thing in common: they are based on assumptions and unquestioned stereotypes. 

And being marketers and copywriters, we understand why it’s easy to fall for stereotypes. When you are short on time or you just don’t know what to say (or how), following the “universally accepted” option (aka, assuming) seems like the best solution. Yet, we truly encourage you to resist the urge. 

Here are 3 easy steps you can follow if you find yourself in the middle of a marketing dilemma and not knowing what to say: 

  1. Go back to your market research notes.  Collect all that precious information regarding your customer’s actual needs. What’s the problem they want to solve and how does your product or service solve it? How can you build a bridge between a before and after state?
  2. Put yourself in your intended audience’s shoes. If you are not part of your product’s intended audience, avoid using your personal experience and opinions as a valid measuring mark. This might be difficult at the beginning (particularly if you developed the product), but it’s a necessary step if you want to position your brand in an authentic way.
  3. Ask yourself: am I really delivering my promise?  And answer sincerely! Are you promising a radical transformation or a complete overhaul? Then you have to deliver exactly that! Are you somehow missing the mark? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the initial promise. 

Are you interested in launching a sustainable brand but you just don’t know how? If this is you, Kristina has two handy tips for your journey:

1. “Expect things to take longer than you’d like them to. It’s just part of the game, better to embrace it and take it in stride rather than fight it and just end up frustrated and exhausted for no reason. It’s a long journey but it’s worth it in the end (or so I’m told, I’m not quite at the end yet but so far it’s absolutely worth it).”

2. “Be prepared for your world to change. People who you thought for sure would support you won’t, and strangers will support you in unexpected ways. It’s a good thing! You can’t get to somewhere new without leaving the old behind. Invest in your personal development and surrender to the journey, it’s quite rewarding in the end!”

Wrapping things up.

In this article, we explained what greenwashing is and why it is considered a manipulative marketing strategy. According to Jay Westerveld’s 1986 definition, greenwashing is the practice of making bold sustainability claims (that 90% of the time, could not be properly backed up) to divert the public’s attention from the damaging environmental practices of certain companies.

Although nowadays companies don’t blatantly greenwash as some oil companies did in the 80s (the Wild West of the trend), this unethical marketing practice is still “a thing”. When brands nowadays greenwash, they do so in subtle and almost imperceptible ways. Such is the case of Red Lobster, Oatly, and Earth Rated, which we reviewed above. 

Although some folx may have a hard time conceptualizing the damage that greenwashing does, its effects are quite real. When companies greenwash, they create a negative buzz around brands that are genuinely sustainable, thus invisibilizing their struggles to stay on top of consumers’ minds. Greenwashing also ends up exhausting consumers, forcing them to become skeptical of open promises of sustainability. 

READ: 4 Ways Purpose-Driven Brands Can Share Their Impact Across Social Platforms

Finally, we discuss 3 steps that you, as a small business owner, can take to prevent yourself from falling into any manipulative marketing practice when marketing your services or products. Those steps are: 

  1. Go back to your market research notes.  
  2. Put yourself in your intended audience’s shoes.
  3. Ask yourself: am I really delivering my promise? 

If you liked this, you might also enjoy…
Femvertising: How Marketing Upholds the Gender Binary
Outsourcing & the Gig Economy: A Prime Example of Culturally Incompetent Marketing

If you’re interested in learning more about creating your own culturally competent brand message, don’t forget to download our Culturally Competent Brand Message Checklist!

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