When Did Greenwash Start And What Does It Mean Now?

  • 3 years ago
  • 8 Minutes to Read

It’s no secret that greenwash is everywhere! We’re starting to see it more and more in marketing and it seems to be getting more brazen than ever.

We previously took a deep dive into this sneaky marketing ploy and armed you with all the tools you need to spot it and call it out. 

What you may not have known is that although greenwash is only something that has really come into the mainstream recently, it has been around for a while and brands have been tricking consumers for years. Surprised? Us neither…

It’s important to not only understand how to spot it, but it’s also key to understand where it came from and how long it’s been around. Education and knowledge is power after all so we’re going back to when greenwash originated and looking at some of the stunts that have been pulled since then. Greenwashing comes in many forms but as you’ll probably know, at its heart it is essentially brands and businesses choosing which information to publicly share and which to withhold in an attempt to make themselves look greener than they are. It’s a cheap con and fools unsuspecting customers who are actually wanting to use their purchasing power for good.


The Origins of Greenwash

The term itself was coined back in the 80’s. Jay Westerveld, an American Environmentalist used the word in a paper he wrote in 1986 following an earlier research trip, where he had stopped off to surf in Fiji. Sneaking into one of the resorts to nab clean towels he’d seen a notice asking customers to reuse their towels. Westerveld noted the irony considering the hotel was focused on expansion at the time, with what looked like little regard for the surrounding natural area. ‘We’ll destroy the environment, but make sure you reuse your towel’.

From then, the term continued to get used to describe a whole host of dishonest practices used by businesses to paint themselves in a greener shade. Given that the term originated over 30 years ago, we’re wondering why brands are still getting away with this.

Early Offenders



We literally cannot write this blog without mentioning possibly the most impactful, deceitful greenwash PR stunt of all time. Drum roll please….. we’re talking BP’s carbon footprint stunt

If you don’t know this one then hold on to your hats. BP, the polluting giant, coined the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ back in 2005 (helped by Ogilvy). This deceptive campaign asked individuals to calculate their own impact on the world and provided ways for them to lower this, all while BP continued destroying our planet. This phrase is still used today to put the onus on the individual. Unbelievable we know. 



Although the term greenwash didn’t get coined for some years later, one of the first examples appears in the 1960s. Pretty shocking eh that this has been going on for so long?! The company blatantly greenwashing before greenwashing was even a thing. Impressive. Westinghouse Electric Corporation released a number of ads that boasted the safety and cleanliness of nuclear power plants. A 1969 ad stated ‘Nuclear power plants are good neighbours. They are odourless. They are neat, clean and safe.’ The ad also showed a power plant set up beside a pretty tranquil looking lake environment. Although nuclear power may be considered safer than other forms of energy, environmental concerns cannot be ignored.



Chevron is another early offender in the greenwashing game. The oil company released a campaign in the mid-1980s called ‘People Do’. Essentially attempting to convince people of the company’s environmental focus. One ad described how the people will drill for oil through the winter while bears hibernate but once spring swings round they’ll be gone and the impact on the environment will be like they were never there… pretty suspect if you ask us! Watch the ad here and decide for yourself.

As you can see, the big old oil giants are usually among the worst offenders – they have after all spent years downplaying their part in climate breakdown and funding misinformation and denial. But unfortunately, we see greenwash from brands of all sizes and all industries. 



What Greenwash Means Today

We’re bombarded with marketing messages left, right and centre currently and with so much noise on the internet, consumers need clarity in order to cut through.

Between greenwash, eco-shaming and tone-deaf marketing that jumps on the latest trend or movement, it’s harder than ever to be able to define real purpose from some of these brands. What customers want so much right now is to be able to support brands and businesses that stand for a cause and are committed to looking at their practices and exploring ways they can continuously improve to protect both the planet and people.

The fear with greenwash today is that due to consumers being that much more wised up to the damage their actions can cause, they are actively searching out ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, and ‘planet friendly’ products, and brands realise this. The danger is that in order to beat the competition, it becomes all the more tempting for brands to tweak their wording here or add a statement there. Perhaps, even sometimes using words without fully knowing the impact they can have or realising that by using these words, they themselves are actually greenwashing.

 It’s time for brands that are truly purpose-driven to speak up, to call out greenwash and to be truly transparent with their messaging. If you’re thinking of inflating your green credentials to get one step ahead, this isn’t a good idea. Instead, be honest and transparent and your consumers will thank you in the long run. 

This is where a sustainability report is vital for brands. If you’re talking the talk then it’s time you walked the walk. Be transparent with your consumers, show them that you may not be perfect but you’re trying and be open and honest about your impact. There will always be areas for improvements. Businesses should be able to hold their hands up and say ‘look, we haven’t quite cracked this, but we’re working on it’. It is openness, trust and ultimately working collaboratively that will help us win in the climate fight. Brands need to understand this before this before their murky behaviour has everyone pulling the plug.


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