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'Greenwashing' misleads do-good investors, consumers 

Not every company is genuine in its pursuits

Not every company is genuine in its pursuits of a cleaner planet or more equitable society. And making false or misleading claims about "greenness" can affect investor trust. Here, a female shopper in a store chooses a variety of coffee.  Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Mikhail Spaskov

"All natural," "eco-friendly" and "green" — we’ve seen it all before. Food, home goods and clothing companies have all jumped on the sustainable bandwagon, and it’s not just because of their undying devotion to the environment.

According to the 2019 Accenture Chemicals Global Consumer Sustainability Survey, more than half of consumers surveyed would pay more for sustainable (meaning recyclable or reusable) products. Turns out, there’s good money in going green.

But not every company is genuine in its pursuits of a cleaner planet or more equitable society. And making false or misleading claims about "greenness" can affect investor trust.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a misrepresentation of a product, service or investment, making something appear to be more sustainable than it actually is. Greenwashing includes eggs labeled "farm fresh," clothing marketed as "eco-friendly" and investments labeled "green" when those claims are either exaggerated or cannot be substantiated.

"Greenwashing is virtue-signaling," says Lina Khan, a senior sustainability specialist for Gensler, an architectural firm. "Ensuring that your product or service is good from an environmental and sustainability standpoint is so valued by society, but some organizations feel the need to advertise more than what they’re actually doing."

How greenwashing affects investments

Environmental, social and governance criteria are at the heart of ESG investing, which has grown significantly in popularity over the last several years. ESG criteria are factors that measure an investment’s sustainability. Unfortunately, with the rise of consumer and investor interest in ESG comes the rise in greenwashing.

This can lead some businesses, such as oil companies, to be included in funds that investors may not have expected. Critics have called ESG and other forms of sustainable investing marketing ploys or scams, noting that sustainability is just a trend that companies are trying to capitalize on.

One reason why greenwashing has been able to slip through the cracks when it comes to investment securities is that there are numerous ESG data providers. And because multiple companies offer ESG evaluations, it can be difficult to know which one to trust.

The Biden administration has even called for better guidelines and standardization around ESG investments. In a May executive order, the president requested that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh review previous rulings about the inclusion of ESG funds in workplace retirement plans such as 401(k)s.

The Climate Group is a nonprofit that helps companies commit to and follow through on environmental initiatives. When asked about how greenwashing impacts consumer trust, Vartan Badalian, the Climate Group’s EV100 program manager for North America, says it’s not good for anyone.

"It’s not helping the planet or any businesses. It puts more distrust out there for consumers and investors," Badalian says.

But while ESG has its critics, it also has its champions who note that any level of commitment a company is willing to make toward sustainability is better than none.

How you can avoid greenwashing

The field of sustainable investing is still relatively new, and while industrywide standardization may still be a long time coming, there are ways to increase the green in your portfolio (and hopefully your wallet).

Khan encourages consumers and investors to do the legwork when it comes to learning about a company’s sustainability policies.

"Follow the breadcrumbs," Khan says. "Look at reports, look at third-party verification and do a little bit of your own homework to go beyond the tag lines of ‘sustainability’ and ‘green.’"

ESG funds usually publish impact reports, allowing investors to see the real-world changes their investment dollars are making. A fund’s prospectus will also show the individual companies that fund invests in, so you can see exactly where your dollars are going.

For investors who don’t have the time or desire to dive into the nitty-gritty of their investment holdings, several robo-advisors offer automated ESG investment portfolios.

Alana Benson writes for NerdWallet. Email: abenson@nerdwallet.com. This article provides information for educational purposes. NerdWallet does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend specific investments, including stocks, securities or cryptocurrencies.

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