Greenwashing: When Gold Looks Green

As the Beijing Olympics come to an end, athletes return home with gold medals, fans excitedly review their favorite moments, and the newscasters pack up their cameras. What is left behind? Hosting the Olympics takes a great deal of preparation and brings overwhelming pressure to the host country to represent their nation favorably. This year Beijing emphasized having “Green Games” - promoting their sustainable management practices. One such amazing claim was the forestation of roughly 198,000 acres. Broadcasts panned over these forested areas overlaid with the Olympic Rings, an inspiring image of responsible management and green initiatives. The truth behind this environmental win is more complicated, however, and is an example of the growing issue of Greenwashing.

The issues with the Beijing reforestation plan stems from the source of the treelings. Nearly 20,000 trees were removed from the Songshan National Nature Reserve to construct the Olympic ski center. China promised to transplant the trees and topsoil to the reforestation process. Unfortunately ecosystems can not be transported in this way, and this action will ultimately result in an unhealthy forest and decrease in biodiversity. The land cleared to form the ski center is also now exposed to chemical leaching from fake snow production. While the Beijing Olympics have advertised the “positive” environmental actions and masterfully controlled the environmental image of the event, the true environmental impacts tell a different story. This is greenwashing. 

Greenwashing has become a frequent marketing practice across most industries. As consumers increase their awareness of environmental issues, companies are eager to share their customer’s values as long as there is not a need to take action or decrease their bottom line. Greenwashing is the perfect solution: creating a false impression to the consumer that the company is environmentally conscious. The public is most aware of greenwashing in the transportation and clothing industry, but it is also prevalent in cleaning products, furniture, and even food! As busy consumers, we do not always have time to fully research brands before purchasing. Here are a few tips for making informed decisions about the products you choose:


  1. Know your labels

    Not all labels are created equal. Companies like to use terms such as: green, plant-based, all-natural, environmentally friendly, healthy, raw, eco-friendly. These terms do not have any legal meaning.

           Here are some certifications with legal implications and guidelines:


  1. Beware associations

    Marketing is a powerful tool. Examples: Television ads featuring windmills in a pristine field for an oil company, a sparkling waterfall on bottled water pulled from drought areas, the use of green and brown on unnecessary packaging. These images are intended to make its audience associate the product with “green” values without having any positive environmental action attached to it.
  2. Look out for “Lesser of Two Evils”

    Some products will advertise they are greener than their competitor, when truly the better option is a systemic change of the industry or to not partake in the product. A specific example of this is plastic bags using “less plastic” than their competitor. 
  3. Think of a Product’s Lifespan
    1.  ​​​Take a step back from the product’s marketing and answer the following questions:
      • Where was it sourced from?

      • Were the people who made this product ethically compensated?

      • How long will I use it?

      • What happens to the product when I am done with it?

  4. ​​​​​​​Small Steps
    • “The best is the enemy of the good”- Voltaire. In striving for perfection, we often limit ourselves to not taking action. It is ok to make mistakes. It is ok to know about one industry and not another. It is ok to try. Learning how to be an ethical consumer in a system trying to trick us takes time and practice. 

Choose one industry you are passionate about and spend some time learning about it! Check out PEA’s blogs over the next few months as this ethical consumer series goes into more detail about various industries. 

Here are some examples of greenwashed products. Can you find the issue?



Blog information gained from:


Written by Morgan Brazeau