Why does greenwashing work?

Last semester Bachelor and Master students of Persuasive Communication at the University of Amsterdam finished their research projects in sustainable consumption. These projects yielded quite interesting results.

Several studies looked into the effects of greenwashing, a marketing strategy that makes consumers believe that certain products are good for environment, while in reality they are not. It is logical to assume that greenwashing is effective for consumers who are not seriously concerned for environment, but just follow a common trend of buying something “green”. But that’s not what the results show. On the contrary, young educated consumers with high environmental awareness are more likely to fall into the trap of greenwashing, especially when it comes to fashion items. It’s often enough to put an image of something green (a plant or a nature scène) in an ad to make consumers believe they are buying something sustainable. And the effect is higher for those who care for environment.

Why is it happening? When shopping for clothes, we don’t pay much attention to hard facts and rational information and rely more on visual cues, emotions and social trends. Interestingly, this does not happen when we are shopping for more expensive products, like cars. Neither Western teenagers who evaluated a new scooter nor Chinese adults who looked at a new electric car fell into a greenwashing trap, such as nature imagery. Instead, they paid close attention to functional characteristics and eco labels that provide objective information about sustainability of a product.

So, we are able to think rationally and make responsible decisions when it comes to a serious purchase, but we tend to act automatically when shopping for everyday products, such as clothes. And, when it comes to food, there is another powerful factor at play: habit. None of the communication strategies were able to increase consumer preferences for veggie burgers or oat milk. The main factor that plays a role in food choice is familiarity. We like familiar foods and are suspicious about new food products. As the Dutch say:

Wat de boer niet kent, dat eet hij niet.

So, changing consumer behavior is possible, but not easy. We need to think rationally, pay attention to relevant information and resist habitual decisions. Together, we can do it, especially if we realise that the future of our planet is at stake.

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