Greenwashing Goes Through the Web’s Rinse Cycle

Products with an iffy environmental profile look a lot better on interactive websites
By: 
Kate Irwin
Greenwashing concept with buzzwords green, bio and eco.

Ever since environmentalism became firmly established in the public square, firms have tried to position themselves as environmentally responsible actors—often on flimsy evidence. It’s a risky strategy. Particularly in an age of citizen monitors and social media, companies can open themselves to charges of greenwashing—the marketing tactic that aims to position a company as more environmentally responsible than it really is. When that happens, a brand can get severely bruised.

A recent two-part study looked at what influences people’s perceptions of greenwashing in an e-commerce environment. The researchers who conducted the study hypothesized that websites with more interactive green components—for example, information on a firm’s sustainability efforts shown in an expand/collapse accordion—would make that firm’s product appear more environmentally friendly and increase a customer’s intent to purchase. The researchers also wanted to know whether website visitors with strong environmental beliefs would be more skeptical of a company’s claims than visitors without such strong opinions. 

What did the research find?

  • When company product websites were perceived to be interactive and offering a greater amount of information, study participants were more likely to believe marketing claims, purchase the product and think well of the brand.

  • Participants with higher pro-environmental beliefs were not significantly more likely to perceive deceptive “green” marketing claims.

  • When participants considered online marketing as greenwashing, it harmed their perceptions of the product. They also demonstrated lower expressions of happiness and lower intentions to purchase the product. 

  • Organizations fall into four different greenwashing categories when evaluated for their transparency, actual greenness and green marketing: intentional greenwashing (the “evil greener”); unintentional greenwashing (originating, for example, from supply chains); no greenwashing (truthful green marketing); and unadvertised green initiatives (the “green blusher).

How were the studies designed?

Two studies were conducted—interviews with certified B Corporations and an experiment with business students. The interviews with managers at 17 consumer product companies and consulting firms were used to gather perceptions of greenwashing in their industries. Interview questions focused on how organizations can effectively communicate green marketing to mainstream consumers as well as potential obstacles.

The experiment examined 166 Generation Z consumers—those born beginning in 1995—while they interacted with a fictitious company website. Participants underwent a one-hour online shopping exercise in a behavioural lab, where they were asked to interact with one of five different versions of a consumer product website selling t-shirts. During this time, their facial expressions and mouse clicks were recorded. Participants also completed questionnaires to assess their perceptions of web pages and greenwashing.

What do I need to know?

Past research has shown that websites designed with interactive elements improve customer brand experiences and loyalty, and result in deeper user engagement that helps convert e-commerce visits into sales. This research suggests interactive websites could have the same effect for marketers positioning their brands as “green.”

Experimental websites with higher interactivity not only staved off concerns about misleading claims, but actually improved users’ brand attitudes and bolstered their intent to purchase. Interactivity also encouraged users to do just that—interact more with the website, creating more opportunities for users to learn about the brand and make a purchase.

This does raise an uncomfortable question. Why shouldn’t cynical marketers who are attempting to sell a false sustainability story about a product simply design their websites to maximize interactions with potential customers and make their claims more believable?

While the researchers don’t try to resolve this ethical issue, their paper does cite three guidelines for designing persuasive technologies developed by European academic Andreas Spahn. Spahn suggested that websites that aim to persuade should: provide consent; provide as much autonomy to the consumer as possible; and aim to educate and inform the consumer. 

In order to minimize perceptions of greenwashing, the researchers conclude that green marketing managers should take these ethical guidelines into consideration when designing interactive technologies such as websites.

These studies also offer insights on the broader issue of greenwashing. If firms want to temper consumer concerns about their environmental record, they should honestly take stock of what sort of greenwashing they practised in the past, and then calibrate their strategy accordingly. 

For example, the researchers suggest that “evil greeners” could demonstrate greater transparency to improve the image of their brand and restore consumer trust by investing in impact or sustainability reporting (especially if transitioning to greener products and processes is not possible). Unintentional greenwashers could get a better handle on how well their partners, including those in their supply chain, perform on sustainability, and transition to partners with better records. 

“Greenwashing will continue to be a scourge,” the researchers conclude, “unless researchers and practitioners address this organizationally generated manifestation of ‘fake news’ head-on.”


Title: “Perceived Greenwashing: The Effects of Green Marketing on Environmental and Product Perceptions
Authors: Szerena Szabo (School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University), Jane Webster (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University)
PublishedJournal of Business Ethics (published online February 2020)

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