Greenwashing: when audiences call out brands

Greenwashing: when audiences call out brands

13th March 2024

Window-dressing, token gestures and green facades. Audiences are quick to lambast brands for environmental posturing when their unsustainable actions speak louder than their words. But which brands are called out, and how does this happen?

As part of our report, The Audiences of Sustainability (which analyzes over 23 million social and news datapoints),  we examined how the term ‘Greenwashing’ is used online.

Greenwashing is a term that accuses companies of appearing to care about the environment, whilst simultaneously not addressing larger eco concerns within their business. 

Many brands get hit by claims of Greenwashing, being discussed in the news and on social media for failed sustainability practices, window-dressing campaigns and other efforts that don’t meet audience standards for best environmental practices.

We see the term rising, particularly since 2021, with social conversation focused around both greenwashing as a concept and individual brand call-outs when consumers aren't pleased with brands 'talking the talk' but not 'walking the walk'.

When we looked at the worlds biggest brands, we found that they're inevitably swept up in Greenwashing conversations as their sprawling networks struggle to plaster over the cracks made by global commerce. In this visualization, we compare the extents to which brands are associated with concepts of 'sustainability' versus concepts linked to Greenwashing.

Tesla stands out as an outlier. And this is due to their whole business proposition of the brand consisting of a sustainable activity: the manufacturing of electric vehicles. Consensus around the brand has fractured, due to Elon Musk's involvement with X and some scepticism around the sustainability of EVs, but the brand is inherently immune from the criticisms that attach to others attempting to alter long-standing, environmentally unfriendly business models.

The scope and scale of FAANG companies and US powerhouses like Coca-Cola, Nike and J.P Morgan means that they provide a lightning rod for criticism.

Apple is disproportionately affected by Greenwashing associations, with a lot of conversation taking place around their first carbon neutral product in the 2023 Apple Watch series.

Though Greenwashing conversations aren’t necessarily all negative, our analysis found positive conversations to be few and far between. The Greenwashing conversation attracts a fair amount of misinformation content as well, as can be explored further by downloading the full Audiences of Sustainability report below. These narratives come from anti-ESG sentiments that criticize corporations’ efforts towards sustainability.

What other topics and buzzwords are associated with Greenwashing?

The close semantic relationship of Greenwashing to 'green' means that the two are often cited together, with the relatively novel portmanteau word polluting the meaning and associations that attach to the broader topic. Is going 'green' moving from a relatively inoffensive concept to something increasingly more charged?

It’s worth noting the prominence of ‘Ethical’ and ‘Consciousness’, as skeptics call out brands’ hollow attempts to align themselves with sustainability and moral good. Terms such as ‘Ecological’ and ‘Circular’ (the circular economy) also over-index with Greenwashing, suggesting that these gradual shifts in language are having a wider effect on society and behavior.



To stay up to date with our latest insights and releases, sign up to our newsletter below: