Sustainability trends have become ubiquitous in the business world, mainly due to the attention ESG is receiving. To state the obvious, this is a positive trend as it helps push companies to consider their impact on the environment, employees, and customers and ensure their governance practices are sound. However, it also incentivizes actors in the business world to try to game the system through marketing campaigns to improve their reputation.
Through the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies, we embarked on a mission to analyze the sentiment on the web and uncover to what extent companies are incurring reputational laundering techniques to deceive investors, customers, and other stakeholders but also to identify the ones that are actually performing actions to have a positive impact around them.
This analysis dives into the concept of greenwashing and reputational laundering. It reveals the nuanced interplay between genuine sustainability efforts and deceptive practices, offering a new lens to distinguish genuine from false corporate sustainability claims.
Beyond Greenwashing: Reputational Laundering
Let’s start with some definitions. Reputational laundering is deliberately hiding unethical behavior with highly visible positive actions. Greenwashing is just one component of reputational laundering. Another component is the social aspect of it, and it includes various forms of color washing such as purplewashing, pinkwashing, purpose washing, etc. So far, in 2023, greenwashing accounted for 55% of all the volume of reputational laundering mentions on the web. So, the remaining 45% represents color-washing.
TerraChoice defines greenwashing as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental performance and positive communication about environmental performance."
Colorwashing, on the other hand, refers to a strategy used by organizations to create a positive public image by associating themselves with specific causes, ethics, or moral standpoints.
Beyond the conventional understanding of deliberate greenwashing, there’s a more nuanced concept and less discussed: unintentional greenwashing, where companies inadvertently convey misleading environmental claims. This can occur due to a lack of understanding of the true impact of their products or services, unverified claims, overlooking hidden consequences, unintentional confusion in marketing materials, or insufficient transparency. While these companies may not have malicious intent, their actions can inadvertently misrepresent their environmental efforts and mislead consumers about their commitment to sustainability.
Reputational laundering at a glance
Figure 1: Reputation laundering mentions.
Over the past eight years, reputational laundering mentions have increased steadily. However, from 2021 onwards, they’ve grown a staggering 3.3x. The mentions of reputational laundering are coming from different topics, from false advertising, and misleading practices to lawsuits regarding greenwashing. Furthermore, we have observed a growing number of references regarding the declining trust of the public in corporate pledges, such as those related to 'net-zero' climate goals.
This increase can be attributed to two main reasons: the actual increase in reputational laundering and, more interestingly, the growing awareness from stakeholders (i.e., Investors and eco-conscious consumer base).
According to a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), climate change lawsuits have continuously surged over the past five years.
Consequently, we analyze mentions of lawsuits related to environmental breaches and detect a significant increase in 2021 – which continues to the present day.
Lawsuit mentions have increased by more than 3x since 2020. These litigations span a spectrum of environmental issues, extending well beyond planned obsolescence practices by major consumer goods manufacturers. We also observe the rise of youth-led climate change lawsuits, instances of oil spills, wildfires, pollution-related legal actions, and the pervasive issue of PFAS contamination.
Figure 2: Climate change lawsuits since 2015.
Breakdown by type of washing
While greenwashing often dominates the conversation around reputational risks, it's crucial not to overlook the social dimension, which tends to receive less attention from the public. Since 2020, we've observed a significant uptick in mentions of greenwashing and its less-discussed counterpart, colorwashing.
Historically, up until 2020, the distribution of mentions leaned toward one-third greenwashing compared to two-thirds colorwashing. However, post-2021, this pattern has shifted. We've witnessed a rise in the frequency of greenwashing mentions, surpassing those of colorwashing and signaling an evolution in the focus of reputational laundering concerns.
Figure 3: Breakdown by type of washing.
During the COP27 conference at the end of 2022, a call was made to verify carbon and other environmental claims and show zero greenwashing tolerance. As a result, there has been a rise in scrutiny, and data now shows an increase in the number of allegations related to greenwashing. Here are a few examples:
June 2022: Head of Deutsche Bank’s DWS stepping after ‘greenwashing’ raids,
October 2023: Suncor accused of greenwashing
September 2023: Greenwashing cases against airlines in Europe, the US,
In analyzing advertisements, we found instances of reputational laundering through various means. Some companies engaged in social washing, while others used sportwashing to bolster their reputation. The mining and energy industries were particularly guilty of this practice. Meanwhile, the communication industry, including companies such as Netflix and Disney, was associated with black and whitewashing.
Inspecting the Regulatory Landscape
To analyze the regulatory environment of reputational laundering, we studied the effects of different legal frameworks and government organizations on greenwashing and other forms of reputational laundering. We measured the influence of legal frameworks and regulatory bodies on greenwashing by analyzing the quarterly growth of greenwashing mentions over the study period.
In this analysis, we define the concept of legal frameworks by capturing references related to the 'Green Claims' directive, Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation, EU Taxonomy, Green Product Certification, Fair Labeling and Advertising Act, Non-Financial Reporting Directive, FTC Act, FTC Green Guides, etc.
Concepts of Regulation bodies are defined by references to governments and Supranational entities (i.e., US government, FTC, SEC, Chinese government, Japanese government, etc.) or regulatory agencies established to safeguard the environment (United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), European Environment Agency (EAA), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), etc.)
Figure 4: Anti-greenwashing regulation vs greenwashing growth.
Over the past three years, mentions of frameworks and laws have grown substantially, with increasing ESG scrutiny, new green claims guidelines, and a focus on sustainability and ESG reporting.
There has been a slight increase in the mentions of regulatory bodies over the years, mainly due to the growing interest in greenwashing, which has peaked during events like COP26 and COP27. Legal frameworks and regulatory bodies have played a significant role in the fight against greenwashing. Although there is no decrease in the mentions of this topic, the growth rate has reduced significantly. In fact, the quarter-on-quarter growth for greenwashing web mentions has been decreasing lately.
The trends reveal an interesting fact that there is a negative correlation between the growth in mentions of frameworks, laws, and regulatory bodies and the growth in mentions of greenwashing. Though the mentions of greenwashing are still increasing, the growth rate has significantly decreased from a 75% quarterly growth rate to 10% in the last year (except for spikes related to controversial events such as Greta Thunberg labeling COP26 as a “greenwash festival,” and not attending COP27).
As we navigate the landscape of corporate sustainability, it becomes evident that distinguishing genuine efforts from greenwashing is not just a matter of skepticism but a necessity. This exploration underscores the importance of vigilant analysis and the role of AI in unmasking deceptive practices. It calls for a collective commitment to transparency and accountability, empowering stakeholders to make informed decisions and advocating for a future where corporate responsibility aligns authentically with sustainable development.
At SESAMm, we used AI to study billions of articles and analyze greenwashing trends. Download this comprehensive ebook for an in-depth understanding of the evolving landscape of reputational laundering, notably greenwashing, and dive into its trends in the corporate world.
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