Examining Greenwashing: The Dark, Murky, and Bright Sides of Earth Day

Julianne Waite
April 21, 2023
Illustration by Melissa Stafford of DG+Design

Earth Day is largely regarded as a good thing – a deserved celebration of the planet we call home. What’s not to love? Earth is rad! We absolutely should join hands and rejoice that this particular orbiting rock offers the key ingredients for life as we know it. But like many of the best things – love, justice, freedom – our precious planet has fallen victim to bad actors seeking to profit from the tactful plucking of our warm, fuzzy heartstrings. I’m talking about greenwashing. 

Greenwashing refers to the practice of using misleading environmental claims for marketing purposes. 

Earth Day – founded in 1970 (pre-Environmental Protection Act) with the indisputably wholesome goal of promoting environmental awareness and protection – today serves a slightly different yet equally important role: BS barometer. 

I argue that Earth Day 2023 is about more than planting trees and turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth. Earth Day 2023 is about exposing the pitfalls of corporate greenwashing, empowering conscious consumers, celebrating real progress, and marketing ethically.

Here I explore the dark, murky, and bright sides of Earth Day. I also offer some tips both for purpose-driven consumers and for fellow marketers because the truth is that Earth Day can be tricky for everyone. By learning from the errors of years past, we can all set ourselves up for success in the future. That includes both marketers and consumers, alike.

The dark side of Earth Day

The company with the loudest voice often has the least to say.

Let’s start with a truly egregious example of greenwashing to get your blood boiling. Let’s talk about ExxonMobil and its insufferable Earth Day 2021 campaign.

I assume most of us are familiar with ExxonMobil but the lunacy (and irony) of its greenwashing just doesn’t hit as hard without some background:

With that in our back pocket, let’s take a look at ExxonMobil’s cringe-inducing 2021 Earth Day campaign. (Find a link to the full video here and check out a screenshot below.)

As a marketer, I’m shook. As an environmentalist, I’m pissed.

I assume the irony of this Grade-A Bologna is not lost on you. Nor was it lost on the folks who conducted a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study on the glaring mismatch between the actions and investments of oil companies and their “green” claims. It definitely didn’t fool the State of Massachusetts, which took Exxon to court for “misleading Massachusetts consumers through so-called ‘greenwashing’ campaigns that wrongly imply that ExxonMobil is taking steps to solve climate change and reduce carbon.”

Heavy-handed greenwashing like this is pretty easy to spot. But less obvious examples are everywhere and they make it difficult for conscious consumers to distinguish between true environmentalism and Grade-A Bologna. 

The murky side of Earth Day

Deciphering deception and maintaining morale.

Recently, a client of mine – who previously worked in communications at the Sierra Club – referred to Earth Day as the “SantaCon of sustainability”. Never have I heard a more accurate description of Earth Day. (Background on SantaCon for the uninitiated here.)

When I worked as the Marketing Director for a non-profit coalition dedicated to eliminating single-use plastic, part of my role entailed managing business partnerships. Most of the year this followed a steady cadence of co-branded plastic-free product launches and the like, but come each April everything would change. 

Suddenly, my inbox was overwhelmed with messages from frantic marketers all scrambling for the same thing: an environmental non-profit willing to collaborate on an Earth Day campaign. 

Once I moved past being annoyed that none of these bozos had the forethought to reach out prior to April, I felt kind of bad for these desperate marketers tasked with the impossible: rebranding face goop and boogie boards as “sustainable”. (My sympathy for these folks was short-lived and I was dishing out hard passes in no time.)

It is worth mentioning that I was shooting these turkeys down not for sport but because our organization was not in the business of greenwashing and my job was not to help tchotchke manufacturers peddle their wares.

It also bears noting that sifting through the deluge of Earth Day collab requests wasn’t as simple as blindly pasting canned rejection emails to every marketer who reached out to me in April. I did my research on every business that reached out, and let me tell you, that type of investigative endeavor quickly becomes a rabbit hole for this naturally inquisitive, endlessly skeptical daughter of an attorney. My research was equal parts time-consuming and eye-opening. I was dumbfounded to see the range of greenwashing out there; while some seemed born of Lord Voldemort himself, many were more difficult to discern. 

Some touted a lone plastic-free product in a line of 30 products packaged in single-use plastic – was this progress or pandering? Others claimed “100% renewable energy” when they had simply purchased RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) – was this a stepping stone on the path to behavior change or was this their ultimate “solution”?  Despite my relentless digging, I couldn’t answer these questions myself.

Distinguishing real progress from false or unsubstantiated sustainability claims can be really tough, even when you are paid to do it. And when you aren’t – when you are just a human being who simply wants to make mindful purchasing decisions – it can feel really overwhelming. 

But taking a step further to learn more can be worthwhile, especially because there are actually a lot of awesome businesses out there that are doing right by planet Earth. Furthermore, the fact that eco-minded consumers exist in the first place – and are becoming more discerning – pushes businesses of all kinds to actually do better.

The bright side of Earth Day

You care about the environment, and big business is on to you (that’s a really good thing).

Why is it so hard to wade through the Earth Day noise? Because conscious consumers have been on the rise in recent years and now this sexy market segment has the attention of everyone with an eye on their bottom line. The general trend towards giving a damn has forced businesses large and small to consider how environmentally friendly their offerings are, or at least how environmentally friendly they can make them seem. 

"79% of consumers are changing their behavior based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, and environmental impact." (Capgemini)

And while some businesses do opt for the easy button – a “green” marketing campaign paired with no actual changes to their business model (I’m looking at you, Exxon) – others are taking the challenge to do better very seriously. These companies are taking meaningful steps like installing rooftop solar, electrifying their vehicle fleets, improving their supply chain, and even giving back to communities through programs like 1% for the Planet. These actions are a huge deal and we should celebrate them. 

The truth is profit and planet have been diametrically opposed since the advent of capitalism, and historically profit has reigned supreme. That we are now witnessing a shift in favor of the planet is monumental. 

So, my advice to the purpose-driven consumers reading this is: keep it up, because what you’re doing is working. And tomorrow, when you are inundated with Earth Day messages from the likes of ExxonMobil, be sure that your BS barometer is operating at full capacity and take pleasure in the fact that their marketing budgets are being wasted on deaf ears. 

And once the “green” tidal wave ebbs, keep an ear out for the more subdued whispers of truly earth-focused companies saying, “Alright, posers. Shout to your heart’s content today. We protect the planet year-round and we don’t need to strain ourselves on Earth Day to prove it.”  

That to me is really the big takeaway of the bright side of Earth Day. The companies doing the most are actually talking about progress and impact year round. They have less need or desire to join the noise on a particular day during the year because they know their impact is real and it shows over time.

Earth Day marketing best practices

How to not lose your job, your customers’ trust, or your dignity.

Okay, so now I’m putting my marketer hat back on to share some ideas for how fellow marketers can show up for this increasingly complex day in an authentic and productive way.

  1. Plan ahead. Build out your campaign strategy several months in advance to avoid getting caught up in the SantaCon madness. By identifying potential collaborators, media outlets, etc. early on you can, (a) reduce the chance of your outreach email winding up in the trash folder of an exasperated potential partner, and (b) test the waters and maybe even get some helpful feedback that saves you from a humiliating Earth Day flop.
  2. Don’t lie. This is a big one, and often a really tough one because there is a ton of pressure on marketers to make businesses look better than they actually are. If your boss or CEO or anyone else tries to force you to exaggerate or lie about sustainability, point them to new research that shows that greenwashing damages relationships with customers and has a negative impact on the bottom line.
  3. Tell the truth. This is different from the one above because lies are infinite and there is only one truth. Telling the truth can be scary, especially if it isn’t ultra-flattering. But modern consumers are a savvy lot and they understand that progress can be more important than perfection. Today's buyers also value transparency, so rather than cooking up a partial truth, tell the story of where your company is today on the journey to true sustainability. 
  4. Opt out. Believe it or not, opting out of Earth Day is an option. In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of my favorite sustainability-minded brands and organizations forgo Earth Day. I think this is partially in protest of aggressive corporate co-opting and partially because sustainability is actually baked into their work every single day. It turns out that if you fight for the planet all year you don’t need to lose your voice shouting about it on a random day in April.

In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Planet Earth is absolutely worth protecting, so let’s all do our best to do it right.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for joining me on this journey. As a reward, here are a couple of fun clips on greenwashing that will hopefully bring a smile to your face:


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