An experimental test of a greenwashing inoculation intervention in Ireland: Effects of ‘pre-bunking’ on identification, consumer trust and purchase intentions

April 9, 2024

Sustainable Production and Consumption, Vol. 47, 2024, p. 318–328

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Misleading claims about the environmental performance of a product or service (i.e., “greenwashing”) hinder consumers from making informed choices and penalise genuinely sustainable companies. We designed a greenwashing ‘inoculation’ intervention (i.e., an educative intervention to pre-bunk commonly used greenwashing tactics prior to exposure). We first pre-tested the intervention using a student sample (N = 206) and then ran a pre-registered replication using a nationally representative sample (N = 2000). Participants were randomised to one of three groups. The intervention group (n = 892) learned about greenwashing and how to identify it whereas the control group (n = 902) read a piece of text about climate change. A third group acted as a ‘no-contact’ control (n = 206). Participants then judged six real advertisements (three greenwashed and three with genuine environmental claims) on greenwashed content, brand trust, and willingness to purchase. The intervention increased greenwashing ratings for two of the greenwashed advertisements, with corresponding decreases in brand trust and purchase intentions. The unaffected greenwashed advertisement was for a dairy-free milk alternative from a familiar brand, suggesting that familiarity and product sustainability may mitigate greenwashing interventions. However, participants also judged two of the three genuine advertisements as greenwashed, implying a broadly-applied scepticism of environmental claims, particularly towards unfamiliar brands. Despite difficulty distinguishing between greenwashed and genuine advertisements, participants were more confident in their ability to identify greenwashing and had stronger resolves to act in pro-environmentally in the future. The findings have implications for greenwashing policy.