What is greenwashing, and why does it happen? With Earth Day 2021 coming up, we take a look at a phenomenon which threatens the credibility of green businesses across the spectrum. For those inside the sustainable finance movement, the term is familiar. It is a common enough phenomenon that it has even made its way into the dictionary, with Cambridge Dictionary defining it as “mak[ing] people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”. In finance, this could mean a “green” investment fund which invests in unrepentant fossil fuel companies.

It is not hard to see how this could harm the credibility of both individual businesses and the green business movement more generally. If there are persistent gaps between how companies present themselves and their products and what they are actually doing, this will harm trust, putting customers off green products and causing genuine damage to the environment in the process. To mitigate this risk to both the environment and businesses operating in good faith, there have been numerous attempts to standardise what it means for a financial product to be considered “sustainable”, most notably the EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy.

The rise of legal standards around sustainable finance implies three distinct types of greenwashing – scientific, legal, and perception. Legal greenwashing refers to falling short of legal standards, scientific to being assessed to fall short of some standard – for example, being consistent with limited global temperature rises to 1.5C – and perception to falling short of public expectations of what a product should mean.

This suggests that there can be both deliberate and accidental greenwashing. As more customers across the financial system demand sustainable products, the incentives to label products as green have increased, and consequently fund managers may consciously or subconsciously respond to this incentive. Fund managers might also sincerely believe in a product which turns out to fall short of legal, scientific or perception standards for what that product should be.

For example, many in the finance industry, such as Lothian Pension Fund’s David Hickey, strongly believe in the power of equity engagement on “brown” stock. The public – as shown in this video from pension campaign group Make My Money Matter – may have limited understanding of the details of how pensions operate and expect even those funds not explicitly engagement in ethically-aware investing to avoid some types of businesses.

With the complex spectrum of greenwashing in mind, it is difficult to put a number on the exact scale of the problem, in finance and beyond. As regulation around sustainable finance improves, and consumers demand more integration of ESG concerns, we will no doubt see some fall short.

How do we solve a problem like greenwashing? Sadly, it seems unlikely that the problem will just go away of its own accord. As sustainability becomes an ever more important part of economic life, greenwashing will continue to be an issue, but one that can be mitigated as regulators, consumers and the financial industry improve their understandings of sustainable finance. In future, assessing whether a financial product’s green credentials are grounded in reality will be as important as assessing whether its financial claims stand to muster.

One innovative solution, touted by Kaisie Rayner, Climate Change Lead at Royal London, at our Ethical Finance 2020 panel on greenwashing, is to flip the situation on its head. With food, Kaisie pointed out, we do not highlight the vegetable content, but rather the sugar and fat. Likewise, instead of labelling some products as “green”, perhaps we should instead be putting health warnings on those that are not.

What can we do to prevent greenwashing?

Be open, honest and transparent about financial products

Financial institutions should disclose the details of their products, and not try to optimistically claim unearned green credentials. Consumers should be able to easily find out the principles and strategies of ethical finance products.

Call out bad practices

Where greenwashing is taking place – intentionally or not – we should call it out.

Strengthen regulation and standardise terminology

Historically, the ethical finance sector has run largely on trust. Firms have been responsible for labelling products as “green”, “ethical” or “ESG”, and consumers have been responsible for assessing whether these labels match their expectations. A standardised set of terms for ethical finance should improve transparency.

Move towards “health warnings”

It should become standard practice to highlight the aspects of a financial product that consumers might not want to be associated with.