Why the best businesses avoid greenwashing and how they do it

A hand with a green pen drawing over the smoke from a smokestack, to represent greenwashing.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As the climate crisis deepens, partners and customers alike are questioning how the businesses they deal with are adapting and helping to fight this threat. In answer, business leaders should provide transparent data on their green strategies and avoid greenwashing – saying one thing about their climate action and doing another.

Many firms are working hard to build a sustainable business model, this involves far more than making environmental pledges. A truly green approach by business leaders will involve proper investigation, oversight, and reporting on the sustainability score of their firm.

There’s still a long way to go. Although Gartner identified sustainability as the key strategic technology trend for 2023 – the majority of firms are still failing to meet sustainability goals. Those falling behind need to own up to it and make honest cases to their investors about how they will address climate concerns.

As Mike Maynard, a consumer brands PR expert of 30 years, says; "Driven by public and media scrutiny, brands are increasingly demanding that companies prioritize social and environmental responsibility to avoid reputational damage”. Greenwashing is not an acceptable part of any brand’s approach to sustainability and leaders must actively avoid greenwashing to keep the trust of their stakeholders.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing can be hard to define but generally refers to presenting partners or customers with misleading ideas about how sustainable one’s business practices are. An obvious tell for greenwashing is the use of vague jargon or 'fluffy' terms that don't really say anything. 

We've all been grocery shopping and seen claims that products are 'organic' (which simply means it is or contains plant or animal matter), 'natural' (so are viruses, uranium, and earthquakes), or 'chemical free' (everything is chemical). In the same way, terms like 'socially responsible' or 'earth-friendly' relating to smartphones or manufacturing processes can be literally meaningless. That's greenwashing.

Greenwashing is also a great way to deflect attention away from an unsustainable practice. Ecologist Jay Westerveld came up with the term in a 1980s essay, inspired by the gilt-edge card in a hotel inviting him to help save the planet by hanging his towel up to reuse rather than wash, while the hotel maintained plenty of other environmentally devastating practices.

Westerveld's work became a critical part of the environmental movement, and today it gives us a handy reckoner to identify plenty of big companies using similarly underhanded tactics. In 2001 British Petroleum transformed into 'Beyond Petroleum', its new sunny starburst logo making it look like the company was going to trade exclusively in solar and wind power. But the oil and gas supermajor has since rapidly expanded its fossil fuel exploration. In the following years, BP also oversaw the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in history, releasing 210m gallons of oil into the surrounding ocean.

While tech companies aren’t necessarily overseeing operations that could lead to a similar disaster, the impact that companies can have adds up. If you advertise your company as being concerned about the environment but this isn’t reflected in your business processes, you’re actively greenwashing. All companies need to take public responsibility for their impact on the environment and those that engage in greenwashing shrink back from this duty.

How to avoid greenwashing in tech

In a word: own it. In a big company (or across a large supply chain) it's hard to know exactly who's in charge of what, and plenty of climate impact tracking and reporting can be dispersed across companies without clear coordination. But efforts must be made to bring this data together, including across your supply chain – partners and customers want you to do all you can and spluttering protests of 'but it wasn't us' won't fly.

Depending on one’s workplace culture, the degree to which the IT department has a say in sustainability will differ. At the very least, IT leaders can advocate for more energy-efficient workloads and hardware. But the best executive teams will recognize the important role IT teams can play in auditing their supply chain and taking a holistic approach to green targets.

Pandemic shortages showed us all how hyper-connected supply chains are today, and now the sustainability efforts of your company are about much more than just your own operations. Avoiding greenwashing is partly a story about how closely connected and transparent (or not) supply chains are today. Before you can make bold claims about how climate-friendly you are, you need to be aware not just of your own processes and systems but those of up and downstream partners.


It’s not uncommon for companies to engage in greenwashing because leaders simply didn’t have oversight of their entire business model. Not all managers or executives have the expertise or visibility over operations or supply chains to know what's truly environmentally beneficial and what isn't.

"Tech supply chains are complex, often global, and frequently opaque," Maynard says, "and they're usually responsible for the lion's share of a brand's emissions”. Many in IT channel are working to prove the supply chain’s sustainability credentials and sustainability has been identified as the number one focus for the channel. But this is an ongoing effort and leaders must commit to measuring their sustainability performance and maintain oversight of all the associated environmental impacts of their business.

Taking a lead on climate responsibility in tech

If leaders discover their company has engaged in greenwashing or otherwise fallen short of climate promises, they must change course and be transparent about their shortcomings. "Develop a plan to address those gaps," advises PR expert Alison Lancaster, "and avoid obscuring or downplaying negatives."

Even if some leaders want to downplay or overlook their environmental performance,  stakeholders are increasingly holding them to account. "Deliberately downplaying environmental performance, known as 'greenhushing,' is also becoming unsustainable," says Maynard. "Strategic silence on climate matters is perceived as a form of deception."

A few decades into the environmental movement, consumers are also wise to unsubstantiated or empty terms, so you also can't ignore accepted third-party certifications and metrics, and Sheershak Agarwal, founder of sustainable fashion outlet Ivory & Ebony , says transparency around them is paramount.

"Clearly communicate the environmental benefits of products backed by verifiable data, and adhere to recognized sustainability certifications and standards," he says.

For example, a company could look to relocate its workloads to a green data center and seek out one of the burgeoning certifications for data sustainability. Crafting a green digital transformation strategy can be a lot of work, but the benefits outweigh the cost. Those willing to lead on climate won’t just unlock savings, but also come out with the better reputation in the long term.

A proactive approach here can also save your business from future shocks. For example, leaders prepared to address the huge energy cost of AI workloads through investment in clean power sources can save money down the line while being completely upfront about the carbon impact of their operations.

An opportunity environmental awareness gives you is to be seen as a leader. Don't wait for partners to start asking what you're doing before you react. Instead, learn what needs to be done, share how you're putting it into practice, and own the conversation. "Educate and engage your audience about genuine sustainability," says technology entrepreneur Steve Feiner.

This can have the added effect of bringing your workforce together, with a unified mission to inspire employees to work productively. Experts have suggested that when it comes to younger cohorts such as Gen Z in the workplace, being transparent about your company’s climate goals can help employees feel purposeful and spur growth. Conversely, workers who realize their employer is greenwashing may become disillusioned with the company’s missions or quit their job altogether.

Being sustainable in 2024 is a measurable science and greenwashing is a sure sign your you, or your partners, won’t go to the trouble or expense of doing the right thing. If you want your firm to be trusted by customers and partners alike, clear messaging around green goals is an absolute must.

Drew Turney
Freelance journalist

Drew Turney is a freelance journalist who has been working in the industry for more than 25 years. He has written on a range of topics including technology, film, science, and publishing.

At ITPro, Drew has written on the topics of smart manufacturing, cyber security certifications, computing degrees, data analytics, and mixed reality technologies. 

Since 1995, Drew has written for publications including MacWorld, PCMag, io9, Variety, Empire, GQ, and the Daily Telegraph. In all, he has contributed to more than 150 titles. He is an experienced interviewer, features writer, and media reviewer with a strong background in scientific knowledge.