Labels like ‘carbon-neutral,’ ‘net zero,’ ‘green,’ and ‘energy-efficient’ are emotionally charged marketing strategies. Consumers are bombarded daily with messages convincing them of the environmental impact of their individual actions. Guilt-ridden shoppers therefore seek products that are “sustainably” produced to have as little impact on the environment as possible.

Their guilt has been weaponized against them. An even tougher question to come to terms with is: what if it’s actually just a big scam?

A 2021 screening of websites conducted by the European Commission and national consumer authorities analyzed green claims from various online businesses and found that in 42% of cases, the claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive and potentially broke the EU’s laws against unfair commercial practices.

One deceptive strategy companies use is basing carbon-neutral or eco-friendly claims on so-called ‘carbon offsets.’ Offsetting is essentially the theory that companies can negate their own harmful emissions by investing in projects that reduce or store carbon (e.g., forest preservation or tree planting) or buying credits in a carbon marketplace.

Studies have repeatedly shown that offsetting is largely worthless and could, in fact, be making things worse. A nine-month investigation by The Guardian, Die Zeit (a German weekly), and SourceMaterial (a non-profit investigative journalism organization) found that at least 90% of the rainforest carbon credits sold by Verra, the world’s leading carbon marketplace, did not represent real emission reductions.

Words and phrases like “green”, “energy efficient”, or “biodegradable” could get the hammer under the new rules if the products cannot demonstrate “excellent environmental performance.”

The EU provisions come amid a wave of government crackdowns on green advertising claims that don’t hold water, including in the UK, Australia, and Switzerland.

However, while any effort to force more truth into the marketplace is good, an excessive focus on cracking down on greenwashing may itself be a distraction.

For one thing, these battles against greenwashing could simply lead to pyrrhic victories, where high-profile cases are pursued for their public relations and political value, all the while delivering very little positive impact on the environment. Governments may spend inordinate amounts of their limited resources on policing marketing claims just to garner clout with voters.

READ MORE: Be wary of the battle against ‘greenwashing’