Greenwashing occurs when an individual or business presents itself or its products as being more environmentally friendly than they really are. The practice is increasing and becoming harder to spot.

Sometimes greenwashing is intentional. Marketers will go to great lengths to tell you how good their product is but fail to mention what’s wrong with it. They might use language that is designed to deceive. They might simply lie.

Sometimes it’s unintentional. Genuine concern and optimism can cause a business to make commitments it can’t keep. Sometimes it promotes things in a misleading way.

Either way, greenwashing causes damage. And inflated claims can harm a business’s reputation.


While the climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution crises accelerate, businesses are feeling the heat. They are under increasing pressure to become more sustainable.

While some businesses are embracing the challenge, others resist change. They fear becoming more accountable will impact their profits. Other believe change will upend their business models or create too much work. In the meantime, greenwashing can placate consumers, investors and regulators while the business carries on as usual.

And then there are the businesses that genuinely want to become more sustainable, but aren’t sure how. In these cases, greenwashing can fill the gap between ambition and action.

The damage caused by greenwashing

“The planet cannot afford delays, excuses, or more greenwashing.”

 Catherine McKenna, Chair, UN Secretary-General’s High-level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments


At its worst, greenwashing can:

  • allow companies to capture the eco-conscious market without changing their practices. This is not only deceptive, but also means consumers aren’t demanding better products or services or lobbying for improved regulations
  • give a damaging industry the social licence to continue harmful activities
  • delay or prevent laws and regulations that safeguard the environment
  • impact the work of those genuinely committed to good practice.

Greenwashing in floristry

Greenwashing occurs across all industries, including floristry and floriculture.

As florists we see it in the marketing of products, events and businesses.

A large event that announced impressive but vague sustainability goals, while hiding enormous amounts of floral foam trash backstage.

A sundries company who wraps an unsustainable product in green packaging with a graphic that looks like some kind of certification – but isn’t.

A florist business that shouts about a single issue – it doesn’t use foam, for example, or it only uses local flowers – while its business model relies on plane travel, fossil fuel power or unsafe supply chains.

The florist may not even be aware of these issues or why they’re a problem. But when a business fails to be transparent about all its activities and overstates its impacts, it runs the risk of greenwashing.

How to avoid greenwashing


“You have another segment of companies that maybe they’re just starting their sustainability journey. So, for them, they might be overpromising and under-delivering … It’s not baked in. Maybe it’s a mistake and I’m okay with that because we can fix mistakes.”

John Pabon, author of The Great Greenwashing: How brands, governments, and influencers are lying to you


As we’ve established, not all greenwashing is deliberately deceptive.

If you are striving to become more sustainable and have a small business, you need to ensure you’re not inadvertently greenwashing.


1. Be honest and transparent.

Achieving sustainability goals can be difficult and expensive – particularly for small businesses.

If you have limited financial resources, you can’t simply hire a sustainability officer. You may not know how to develop a plan, what to include in that plan, or how to measure your progress.

That’s the bad news. But here is the good news: Consumers do not expect businesses to be perfectly sustainable. Instead, they want to see effort and honesty.

Think about how your consumer experiences your product, and your business, and be honest about all of it. Be as truthful and transparent about imperfections as you are about your achievements. This will not only motivate you, but also increases your customers’ trust in you.


2. Have an actionable, measurable plan.

Many companies start with a public goal or pledge. Statements like: ‘We will hit net-zero by 2030’, or ‘All our products will come in recycled and recyclable packaging by next year’.

Pledges are meaningful, and can change behaviour. But they only work if there is a plan or pathway towards their achievement.

Plans allow you to see if your goals are realistic. And even if you have not yet reached your goal, plans demonstrate progress to your consumers.

The SFN’s Foundation in Sustainable Floristry course outlines a pathway to more a sustainable design and business practice.


3. Be specific

Avoid vague words like ‘bio’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ – they may seem like they back up a sustainability claim, but they are essentially meaningless.  Even describing a product as ‘compostable’ can be misleading if the instructions aren’t clear. ‘Compostable’ does not always mean you can simply toss it in a garden pile. Industrial composting requires specific, human-managed treatment processes involving high heat that few people can access through their usual municipal compost collection systems. And there are no certifications or standards that guarantee a product will fully break down in the open environment, outside a composting system.

Consumers are very wary of vague language. Being specific increases trust. What do you mean by ‘local flowers’ – are the grown in your area or on your continent? There’s a big difference. Rather than advertise an ‘eco-friendly’ arrangement, tell your customers what makes it a more sustainable choice.

4. Think about the entire lifecycle of your products.

Adopting a ‘cradle-to-grave’ view is at the heart of becoming more sustainable. We need to think about the resources that go into creating products, and where they will end up at ‘end-of-life’.

The circular economy goes one step further – it encourages a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ view. The goal is to keep products, materials and resources in circulation, and eliminate waste and pollution. In floristry, many products and materials that we have come to depend on cannot be reused or recycled. Over time, these must be eliminated or substituted for products that can be.

Our Materials Guide can support you to make better decisions about the products you use.

How greenwashing works


CASE STUDY ONE – Misleading marketing

UK meal kit subscription service Gousto is clearly invested in becoming more sustainable. It is B Corp certified. It has partnered with other organisations to measure the carbon footprint of its meals and monitor its supply chains. It delivers a sustainability report every year.

But, when Gousto claimed its new Eco Chill Box was 100% recyclable in 2020, it ended up in front of the UK’s independent advertising regulator, the ASA.

Gousto advertised that the Eco Chill Box contained “absolutely no plastic” and that “every part of it is widely recycled”.

It was true that the box itself is entirely cardboard and completely recyclable. However, consumers receive the box with an ice pack made of low-density polyethylene plastic (LDPE). LDPE is recyclable, but, in reality, only 5% is recycled.

The company argued the box and the ice pack were two separate products, but the ASA recognised that, given the way it was advertised, the consumer was likely to consider the box as a whole.

The lesson

Don’t rely on the “technically true” defence. Think about how your consumers will interpret any claim you make. Be specific so there is no room for confusion.


CASE STUDY TWO – A pledge without a plan

Under increasing pressure to move towards more sustainable energy, three of the biggest fossil fuel corporations – Shell, Chevron and BP – claim they aim to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In each case, the statements are vague. For Shell, it is a ‘target’, for Chevron an ‘aspiration’, and for BP, an ‘ambition’. Independent research shows all three are quite aware they will not get there.

  • Reclaim Finance research found that Shell will exceed its 1.5°C carbon budget by at least 40.9% by 2050.
  • The NGO Corporate Accountability found Chevron’s net zero pledge overlooks 90% of the total emissions associated with its business practices.
  • Peer-reviewed research found that there was “no evidence” that BP’s investment in clean energy was large enough to allow it to shift away from fossil fuels, as it claims.


The lesson

Avoid making overly ambitious claims. They open you up to scrutiny, and can sound unrealistic. Back up your goals with a detailed plan.


CASE STUDY THREE – A life-cycle fail

Coffee brand Keurig K-Cup was forced to pay US$10 million after deceiving consumers about its coffee pods.

Keurig marketed the pods as recyclable. And they were – in theory. But barely any municipal recycling programs had the infrastructure to recycle them. In reality, they either went into landfill or ended up contaminating the recycling stream.

The lesson

Products do not disappear when they are sold, so you must factor their end-of-life into your sustainability plan.