Greenwashing: Consumers fall prey to misinformation

A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland (ESRI) in partnership with Trinity College Dublin has revealed an orgy of advertising fraud and false environmental claims that misrepresent a product or company’s climate suitability. The victims of this systemic deception are consumers and, of course, the environment itself and the planet.

The study, funded by the Irish Environment Protection Agency (EPA), used a controlled experiment to examine whether and to what extent consumers were victims of the infamous greenwashing. Whether advertisers agree with efforts to “green” and clean up polluting consumer products, as well as entire business groups.

They were suspicious

The researchers selected a representative sample of 2,000 adults who were asked to judge a series of advertisements containing honest and false environmental claims. Special attention was paid to the field of information education. Thus, half of the randomly selected participants first learned about greenwashing tactics used by companies and advertisers and completed a questionnaire to determine their ability to detect deceptive claims.

The results showed that knowledge is questionable. Those trained to detect greenwashing were more confident to do so and more wary of advertisers’ claims than those without knowledge of deceptive practices. However, it was found that informed people were more skeptical of truthful and honest claims that a product is “green” or that a company respects the environment.

“Consumers were less likely to buy from brands they suspected of greenwashing, even if their environmental claims were true,” notes Irish Times reporter Laura Slater, who presented the study.

Ready to move

The group that was informed about greening practices and methods also reported that they were more willing to participate in climate events, while also being willing to include environmental politics in their voting behavior. In other words, he seemed willing to vote for parties and factions that put environmental issues at the top of their political priorities.

But research by ESRI and Trinity College also revealed a competitive disadvantage between businesses with a genuine sense of the environment compared to businesses that only want to whitewash their polluting practices and cover up their climate-destroying behavior.

“Greenwashing makes it harder for truly sustainable businesses to compete with companies that mislead consumers about their environmental credentials,” study author Professor Shane Timmons of ESRI’s Behavioral Research Unit told a news conference.


“Educating consumers about greenwashing doesn’t seem to be helping much. This certainly creates environmentally aware and conscious citizens, but it also creates buyers who are skeptical of any environmental message. The results of our research are in favor of the recent EU directives to deal with greenwashing at the level of governments rather than individual consumers,” the Irish professor emphasized.

“Knowledge from our research will help us develop effective policies to combat greenwashing,” said Dr. Cotter.

EU directives

The European Union has issued two Directives against greenwashing and preventing the publication of unsubstantiated claims about the positive environmental performance of enterprises. One directive concerns the verification and delivery of environmental product claims (known as the “Green Claims Directive”). The second is about “consumer empowerment for the green transition.”

The Second Directive requires verification of “sustainability labels” by third parties. Both Directives were adopted by the EU very recently, in early 2024, and member states’ governments have two years to transpose them into domestic law.

The study, conducted by ESRI and Trinity College, was prompted by European Commission analysis that found that more than half of the environmental claims made in advertising are vague, unsubstantiated or completely misleading. Note that three out of four consumer products have an environmental claim, often in the form of a logo.

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