Greenwashing Exposed: Ensuring Credibility in Sustainability Stories

Source: Catapult

In the quest for a sustainable future, storytelling has emerged as a powerful tool to inspire change, raise awareness, and drive action. As consumers and businesses increasingly prioritise sustainability, the practice of ‘greenwashing’ has also surfaced, muddying the waters of authenticity.


Sustainability storytelling is the art of crafting narratives that highlight environmental, social, and economic issues while inspiring positive action towards a more sustainable world. These stories can humanise complex environmental challenges and evoke emotions. By communicating the importance of sustainability through compelling narratives, storytellers can ignite passion and foster a sense of responsibility among individuals and organisations alike. Genuine stories can raise awareness and empower audiences to make conscious choices and demand sustainability from the companies they support.


Unfortunately, not all sustainability stories are genuine. According to Earth.Org:

“Greenwashing is essentially when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimising their environmental impact. It’s a deceitful advertising method to gain favour with consumers who choose to support businesses that care about bettering the planet.”

According to Consumer NZ, greenwashing claims ‘are rife in New Zealand’. Companies will be watching the current High Court claim against Z Energy with great interest to see what implications it has for their own sustainability storytelling. 

Greenwashing comes in a variety of forms including:

  1. Greenwashing with words: Using words such as ‘eco’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘green’, ‘plant powered’, ‘non-toxic’, ‘plant based’, ‘zero waste’, ‘recycled content’, ‘compostable’ and many more can be examples of greenwashing unless the words are completely truthful, substantiated, and not misleading in any way. For example, if packaging says a product is ‘recyclable’ but can only be recycled at certain centres or by returning it to the manufacturer, or ‘compostable’, where the packaging does not specify under what kind of composting environment it will break down, these may be seen as greenwashing.
  2. Greenwashing with imagery: Businesses often use imagery that implies some environmentally friendly attributes, such as the green arrow recycling logo, an image of the earth, a tree or a green tick, without it meaning their product is eco-friendly or recyclable. These lead a consumer to believe the product has environmentally friendly qualities that it may not have (Simpson Western). Genuine eco-friendly products will often not have these colourful images, as they are usually made with packaging containing neutral shades with no artificial dyes (Sustainability Trust). 
  3. Deliberately Misleading Statements: Any false environmental-related statements are greenwashing, for example, if a product is labelled ‘organic’ or ‘plant based’ if it is not made with organic material or plants.
  4. Fake Certification: Another common form of greenwashing is the use of phrases such as ‘certified green’, which gives the impression that it has been endorsed by a third party, when it is actually just a marketing ploy.
  5. False Carbon Neutrality Claims: The Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor evaluates the transparency and integrity of companies’ climate pledges. In 2023, the Monitor analysed 24 companies who have put themselves forward as climate leaders and found that ‘the climate strategies of 15 of the 24 companies to be of low or very low integrity.’


Greenwashing can incur big fines, create brand damage through negative publicity, and erode trust. Greenwashing also undermines legitimate sustainability initiatives.

Responsibility for preventing greenwashing falls to a number of different regulatory bodies in New Zealand, including the Commerce Commission, which enforces the Fair Trading Act 1986, the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Financial Markets Authority.

As a storyteller committed to promoting sustainability, it’s essential to maintain the highest level of integrity and authenticity in your narratives. Here are some top tips to ensure your storytelling remains true to sustainability values:

  1. Be careful with language such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’. Check out the Commerce Commission’s Environmental Claims Guidelines which say that environmental claims should be truthful, accurate, specific, substantiated, use plain language, not exaggerate, and take care when relying on tests or surveys.
  2. Familiarise yourself with recognised certifications. The Sustainable Business Network has a list of sustainability certifications in New Zealand. Consumer NZ identifies the most common eco-labels on products as Environmental Choice, AsureQuality Organic, and BioGro Organic. Exporters can check out international guidelines such as the European Union which has proposed a range of measures to ban false environmental claims (Green Claims Directive, 2023).
  3. Know the law: The Fair Trading Act prohibits manufacturers from making misleading or unsubstantiated ‘green’ claims. However, enforcing these provisions relies on people complaining to the Commerce Commission or Advertising Standards Authority.
  4. Research and verify: Before making a claim, research and verify certifications and initiatives to ensure they align with your messaging. Focus on concrete actions and measurable impacts.
  5. Be transparent: Highlight challenges and efforts as well as achievements.
  6. Educate and empower: Go beyond storytelling to educate your audience on how they can take real action towards sustainability. Provide practical tips and resources to support their efforts.

Sustainability storytelling can be a powerful catalyst for positive change. It has the potential to inspire, educate, and motivate individuals and businesses towards more sustainable practices. However, we must remain vigilant against greenwashing, which undermines the authenticity of sustainability efforts.

As storytellers, our responsibility is to champion truth and transparency, holding companies accountable for their sustainability claims. By doing so, we can pave the way for a greener, more sustainable future that rests on a foundation of genuine environmental stewardship.