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This year saw multiple environmental disasters, from the collapse of Canada’s last intact ice shelf to record-setting wildfires ravaging the western United States. Amid such stark high-profile signs of climate change in North America, it’s no wonder environmental responsibility continues to move to the top of corporate agendas.

But caution is required for firms seeking to communicate a green message to consumers. Having your company’s environmentalism viewed as tokenism or, worse, misleading can be highly detrimental. This perceived “greenwashing” can result in degraded attitudes toward brands and an unwillingness to buy a company’s products, says Jane Webster, E. Marie Shantz chair of Digital Technology at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

Considering those stakes, Webster and environmental science student Szerena Szabo, now an MBA candidate at the DeGroote School of Business, examined the influences and outcomes of perceived greenwashing. Their research, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, offers insight into how organizations can avoid and recover from allegations of greenwashing.

These same findings could be useful as firms increasingly face claims of corona-washing: Just as companies may mislead consumers about their environmental practices, such deception also exists in firms’ pandemic responses. Szabo points to the example of major clothing brands garnering public praise for promising to pay employees after stores were shuttered this spring. But workers at Ann Taylor, American Eagle and Anthropologie went on to tell BuzzFeed News that those companies had instead cut several scheduled shifts, leaving employees with little or no pay.

As part of their research, Szabo and Webster studied 166 Generation Z students as they shopped on fictitious websites selling T-shirts. In a behavioural lab, facial expressions and mouse clicks were recorded as students used the sites; the participants also completed questionnaires when they were done.

The researchers found that when the students discerned greenwashing, their feelings toward the products turned negative. Participants had lower expressions of happiness, as well as lower intentions of purchasing those products.

Intriguingly, website design was another factor influencing the perception of greenwashing. Participants spent more time on websites containing interactive components, such as hyperlinks and expandable content, known as accordions. When green information was provided in this way, participants were also more likely to believe marketing claims, purchase products and think positively of the brand. This suggested to the researchers that green marketers are able to manipulate consumers by increasing website interactivity, although Szabo and Webster say further research is needed.

The researchers also identified different shades of greenwashing. Companies may be “evil greeners,” who intentionally greenwash; unintentional greenwashers; “green blushers,” who do not advertise their green initiatives; and truthful green marketers, who do not greenwash at all.

“There’s a lot of complexity within greenwashing,” Szabo says. Executives could believe they are being transparent, but not understanding the entire supply chain could result in unintentional greenwashing.

For the study, the researchers conducted interviews with managers at 17 certified B Corporations, a designation that demonstrates a commitment to environmental sustainability, among other attributes. Half the interviewees indicated that their companies rely on transparent communication to avoid the appearance of greenwashing. The study also recommended never making sweeping claims or bragging about being the best in an industry. “It’s not about being the best or being perfect, because that’s where you lose that transparency,” Szabo advises.

A major way transparency can work for all companies, the researchers say, is through third-party certification programs, such as B Corporation, as well as TRUE (for facilities and their operations) and LEED (for buildings). Certification increases accountability and transparency, Szabo says. “It definitely prevents that pushback from other companies, as well as customers, when you’re certified by a third party. It also really just showcases your company’s values. And one other thing could be that it actually attracts young talent,” Szabo says.

Justine Barber of Poppy Barley, an Alberta-based fashion brand producing leather footwear and accessories, has made it a core part of her business to highlight the workers who make her products at factories in Mexico and Brazil. To that end, Poppy Barley became a certified B Corporation in 2019. “It gave us, as a company, a more holistic framework to think about, in terms of being a sustainable business and having goals to strive toward,” says Barber, co-founder and co-CEO. “The second thing was we liked that it was an external certification that had meaning behind it.”

The certification is displayed on the company’s website, at its two stores and on its packaging. Barber says being a B Corp. means a lot to employees. Staff are attracted and loyal to a company with a bigger purpose behind it. “For customers, it’s a mix,” she says. “It’s a relatively new certification, so I think a lot of people don’t know what it means. So then they’re learning, and they find it really interesting.”

Poppy Barley also publishes an annual sustainability report to share goals and demonstrate whether it’s met previous targets. Detailing its shortcomings—along with its successes—is part of the company’s focus on progress over perfection. “Greenwashing happens when you are loosely applying a word and not really attaching a lot of meaning behind it,” Barber says. “It’s really important that we say what we are doing and what we’re not doing, and that we’re specific.”

Third-party certification could also help companies combat corona-washing, Szabo and Webster say. Becoming a certified B Corp., for example, requires an assessment of a company’s impact on workers, customers, community and the environment. When companies have completed such a thorough examination, it seems less likely that they would try to exploit a pandemic. “If [a company] had strong values before the coronavirus, they will probably continue, and if they didn’t, they’ll probably take advantage of it,” Webster says.

Transparency is also important for former “evil greeners” who want to improve and for unintentional greenwashers facing backlash, according to researchers. One approach suggested for reformed firms is to adopt Poppy Barley’s method and produce an impact or sustainability report. “This might seem counterintuitive,” Szabo says, “but a lot of interviewees that reported they respond better to organizations they believe are being truthful.”

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