How to Know if a Climate Tech Company is Greenwashing

9 min read

You want to know whether the climate tech company you’re going to work for is environmentally-friendly or just faking it. Below is our guide to identifying “greenwashing” in its many forms.

An investigation from the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) concluded that up to 40% of websites across multiple industries might feature greenwashing.

How can you tell if a company is greenwashing? You can tell if a company is greenwashing by looking for verifiable proof of their green efforts, the relevance of their claims, and reputable third-party certification. Beware of vague platitudes, meaningless jargon, and outright deception.

If you want to make an impact by landing a role in a planet-positive tech company, you need to ensure the company isn’t making misleading claims. Here’s how to spot greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company spends more on marketing itself as green than on actual green initiatives. Greenwashing may also include dishonesty about green practices or misrepresenting a company’s carbon footprint.

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, environmentalistJay Westerveld coined “greenwashing” in 1986.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued “Green Guides” in 1992 and updated them in 1996, 1998, and 2012. The FTC hopes to help companies avoid misleading customers, but some companies have found their way around the guidelines.

Climate tech companies are typically hyper-aware of their impact on climate change. Tech company websites often feature environmental claims and green marketing, but they should also include detailed web pages verifying those claims.

Some companies willfully deceive customers and employees, while others haven’t done their due diligence. But blissful ignorance is not good enough. Greenwashing is a harmful practice that misleads customers and occupies spaces that should belong to greener companies.

Real-Life Examples of Greenwashing

  • Volkswagen, 2009-2015 — Volkswagen was famously caught faking its emissions tests on multiple diesel vehicles in 2015. Volkswagen denied forging the data and misleading consumers, claiming they didn’t understand the testing requirements. For six years before that, their greenwashed marketing led customers to believe Volkswagen had some of the lowest-emitting diesel vehicles. This case exemplifies how some companies falsify data to appear more environmentally friendly.

  • Nespresso, 2015-present — Nespresso (part of Nestle) claimed for years that its single-use coffee pods were recyclable. However, Nespresso was not as good at getting the word out that their pods couldn’t be recycled via a typical recycling bin; customers had to deliver the used pods to a Nespresso processing facility, which hardly anyone did. In 2019, Nespresso admitted that 71% of their coffee pods ended up in landfills. This case illustrates how some companies omit essential context to their green claims.

  • McDonald’s, 2018-present — In 2018, McDonald’s replaced their recyclable plastic straws with paper straws in all its United Kingdom locations. In 2019, it was revealed the new paper straws were , not to mention the questionable sustainability of the sourcing. McDonald’s marketed itself as a champion of reducing plastic waste when they were taking away recyclable options in exchange for non-recyclable options. This case shows that some companies will enact changes that seem better for the environment (which makes for great marketing), but the changes are worse.

  • Red Lobster, 2021-present — The seafood chain was sued in 2021 for claiming its fishing practices were “Traceable. Sustainable. Responsible.” Unfortunately, Red Lobster’s suppliers of Maine lobster allegedly contributed to the endangerment of local whales and violated the Endangered Species Act, leading to the revocation of the suppliers’ sustainability certification. The lawsuit claims Red Lobster profited off of unsustainable fishing practices, as well as price increases which customers accepted because of the “sustainable” label. This is an example of companies which may not do proper vetting for suppliers or contractors, then market themselves as green with plausible deniability.

  • Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), 2019-present — The AEPW, a Singapore-based nonprofit backed by chemical and oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Dow, spends $1.5 billion to clean up plastic in developing countries. AEPW failed to clean up the Ganges River in India as promised, and its backers plan to produce more plastic in the coming years. This example reveals the lengths that companies will go to appear green even when they intend on increasing their impact on the environment.

Now that you know what greenwashing is, here’s how to look out for it when applying for jobs in climate tech. 

1. Proof

Companies can easily display proof that their company engages in genuinely eco-friendly and sustainable practices. A lack of any actual proof is a bad sign that a company may be greenwashing.

Below are ways that companies can prove they are really green and not just greenwashing:

  • Disclosure of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information

  • Eco-friendly credentials from recognized organizations

  • Claims backed by reputable data

  • Transparent corporate sustainability reports

  • Net-zero goals with actionable interim targets

  • Commitment (and proximity) to renewable energy sources

  • Links to reliable news stories verifying their environmental friendliness

  • Detailed pages on their website describing their impact on the environment and how they are minimizing that impact

2. Relevance

A lot of greenwashing occurs on the packaging. The package is a company’s number one marketing tool! Pay attention to how relevant the green claims on packaging actually are.

Sustainability claims can sometimes fall into the irrelevance category. If a company changed nothing about its business practices to become “sustainable,” that doesn’t exemplify good stewardship of the planet, does it?

For example, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been banned in the US and European Union for a long time. To this day, some chemical companies still put “CFC-free” on their packaging, which is an irrelevant claim.

Here’s a humorous example. Huge bags of cotton candy feature the words “fat-free food” in huge letters. Yes, cotton candy contains no dietary fats, but that certainly doesn’t mean cotton candy is healthy. This is an irrelevant claim. And are we really calling cotton candy “food”?

Make sure companies are making relevant claims. If their packaging or website is covered in irrelevant buzzwords, that’s a red flag.

3. Jargon, Fluff, and Vague Language

Companies and marketing companies love vague jargon that is ultimately meaningless or misleading. Greenwashing is usually vague by design.

Pay attention to green-sounding fluff, such as:

  • “Eco-friendly”

  • “Eco-conscious”

  • “Non-toxic”

  • “Green”

  • “All-natural”

  • “Chemical-free”

  • “Made with recyclable materials”

None of these terms are evil in themselves. But they often lack context.

  • If a company is “eco-friendly,” are they mindful of sustainability in their supply chain? Do they believe in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?

  • If something is “made with compostable materials,” can you simply chuck the box in the compost heap? Is it the product or the packaging that’s made from compostable material?

  • If something is “all-natural,” are there still harmful components found in nature, like arsenic or mercury?

  • If packaging uses “plant-based” materials, do they just mean cardboard since it comes from trees? Everyone already uses plant-based materials to make cardboard.

  • Technically, all matter is composed of chemicals, and anything can be toxic in large amounts. “Chemical-free” and “non-toxic” are disingenuous jargon terms.

A product’s packaging should give concise detail on how it’s environmentally friendly — not vague platitudes. A company’s website should display lengthy information about its green practices and proper certifications from reputable organizations.

4. Deception 

False claims are obviously deception, but unsubstantiated or unverifiable claims are also a form of fraud. If a company makes green claims but never supports them with peer-reviewed science or the backing of reputable environmental organizations, there’s another red flag.

Green imagery is a common deceptive tactic. Unfortunately, you can use green marketing without committing to sustainable practices or minimizing your environmental impact.

“Energy-efficient” light bulbs should have the Energy Star certification. If a lightbulb company says its product is “energy-efficient” but doesn’t feature that accredited certification, the likelihood of purposeful deception is high.

Earlier, we talked about Volkswagen falsifying emissions data. Sometimes, knowing whether a company is lying is difficult until it's caught. But most companies’ marketing material is litigation-proof, meaning deceptive companies are often forced to be vague.

Search for brands that are transparent about their green claims. Most eco-friendly companies feature in-depth pages on their websites describing their green practices.

5. Net Benefit

Some climate tech companies promote a harmful product as a “greener” alternative, but the net benefit is non-existent. Think green product vs. dirty company. Environmental marketing claims can mislead customers and employees into seeing environmental benefits that aren’t there when put in context.

For example, Apple often talks about how environmentally friendly they are. However, one of its multiple bad practices includes the encouragement not to recycle old iPhones. Repairs cost almost as much as a new phone, so many customers get a brand new phone, which is a lot worse for your carbon footprint than using an old phone or buying a used one. You have to decide if Apple is a net benefit to the environment.

Some “green products” are plant-based and therefore more renewable… until you learn that the chemicals required to process the plants are so toxic they’re banned in the US. Just because a product is biodegradable doesn’t mean it isn’t destroying poor communities on the other side of the world. That hidden trade-off makes this product a net negative.

In recent years, there’s been a debate between new electric vehicles versus used fossil fuel vehicles. When choosing the lesser of two evils, you might opt for an EV even though it takes about 3 years before the carbon footprint is lower than the used car. An eco-friendly product’s net benefit for the planet can be challenging to figure out.

If possible, check whether a company’s “net-zero” claim is based more on carbon offsets or altered business practices that address environmental issues. More and more carbon offset programs are proving ineffective, but companies still use offsets to claim net-zerocarbon emissions.

All companies use energy and produce waste. But taking meaningful steps to reduce energy and waste while increasing sustainability can go a long way in improving the net benefit that the company has on the environment.

Connect With Climate Tech Leaders Who Walk The Walk

Avoid greenwashing companies. There are climate tech companies that take social responsibility seriously, utilizing internal audits, renewable energy, and operational efficiency. Meeting consumer demand does not require destroying the Earth.

If you want to connect with verified companies who don’t greenwash, apply to be a freelancer with MVP Match. We only accept the highest caliber freelancers and only work with the highest quality companies looking for freelancers.

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About the Author

Kate manages content marketing for talent acquisition at MVP Match. Her job? Attracting the best and brightest tech talent into our community where they are matched with rewarding roles they deserve. She's a copywriter at heart, and has spent over 10 years in marketing for tech, healthcare, and consulting firms. An avid traveler and workation pro, Kate both embraces and advocates for a future where everyone is empowered to define work on their terms.