Consumers Struggle to Identify ‘Greenwashing’ in Advertisements

Consumers struggle to distinguish between genuine environmental claims made in advertisements and ‘greenwashed’ ones that mislead on how environmentally friendly a product or business is, according to new research from the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin.

The EPA-funded study used a controlled experiment to test the benefit of educating consumers about common greenwashing tactics. A nationally representative sample of 2000 adults judged a series of advertisements that featured genuine or greenwashed environmental claims. Half the participants, selected at random, first learned about greenwashing tactics and completed a quiz to test their ability to spot it. The study was motivated by an analysis by the European Commission showing that over half of environmental claims made on advertisements are vague, misleading or unfounded.

The results showed that those who were trained to spot greenwashing were more confident in their ability to do so. They were also more suspicious of some greenwashed claims than the untrained control group, but the training also led to greater suspicion of genuine claims.

The experiment also revealed that consumers were less willing to purchase from brands they suspected of greenwashing, even if the environmental claim made by the brand was genuine. Those who learned about greenwashing tactics reported being more willing to engage in climate action, including using climate policies to inform their voting behaviour.

“Greenwashing makes it difficult for genuinely sustainable businesses to compete against ones that mislead consumers about their environmental performance,” said Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “Educating consumers about greenwashing doesn’t appear to help, as they simply become more sceptical of all environmental claims. Instead, our results support recent EU Directives that ban many forms of greenwashing, but these Directives still need to be transposed into Irish law.”

Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said “Greenwashing undermines efforts to support consumers to make environmentally-friendly choices and, as this research shows, can lead to confusion and scepticism of genuine environmental claims among consumers.  This research provides valuable insights to help inform the design of effective policy to tackle greenwashing”.