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Greenwashing: How ads get you to think brands are greener than they are – and how to avoid falling for it

Ads are ubiquitous in many people’s lives, whether on billboards across our cities or on our phones as we’re tracked across the internet. That’s a huge amount of power and influence. For example, ads which appeal to eco-conscious consumers have the potential to dramatically affect public perceptions of how brands are addressing climate change.

The green advertising trend – featuring ads that explicitly or implicitly address the relationship between a product or service and the natural environment, promote a green lifestyle, or present a corporation as environmentally responsible – is growing fast. Many ads now feature a range of clever tactics, from filling your screen with green to using vague terms like “all-natural”, designed to convince you the products they’re selling are good for the planet.

But are these ads truly reflective of improvement when it comes to production practices, or is this just another example of greenwashing – when companies present an exaggerated or even false image of having a positive impact on the environment? Thanks to a growing body of research, there are a number of things you can look out for to tell the difference.

As more and more people’s eyes are opened to the harsh reality of climate change and the damaging role consumerism has to play in accelerating it, brands are realising the need to “put green first” if they want to sell their services. As a result, the last three decades have seen environmental advertising flourish.

In reaction, research on green advertising began to emerge in the early 1990s. Although it’s been relatively scarce, growing numbers of academics have been examining how people respond to green ads – and how realistic these ads actually are.