Greenwashing occurs when a person, corporation, or institution represents itself as environmentally friendly where such a characterization is a falsehood or partial truth. Greenwashing is a marketing, advertising, and public relations strategy that diverts attention from the actual and historical harms done to the environment by a specific party. Greenwashing may include taking some small positive action to reduce emissions while foregoing substantive change. When a university that has yet to divest its endowment from fossil fuels circulates messaging in celebration of its “sustainability” projects, that is greenwashing. When a coffee shop outlaws plastic straws in favor of paper ones, while doing little else to improve its carbon footprint, that is greenwashing. Greenwashing also includes a companies’ public reference to its belated carbon-sequestration and renewable-energy initiatives after a history of significant negative impacts. For example, in 2000, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, British Petroleum (BP) adopted a new slogan, rebranding itself, with the help of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, as “Beyond Petroleum.” That is greenwashing.

Greenwashing has recently become the subject of legal action. In November of 2020, New York City filed a lawsuit objecting to an ExxonMobil ad which asserted that the oil producer had “cumulatively captured the most CO2 of any company.” The City claimed that the ad “omitted that during that same period of time, ExxonMobil’s operations and the use of its fossil fuel products have been one of the single largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions emitted into the earth’s atmosphere.”

Defined by Andrew Michael Gorin