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Grey zone in – greenwash out. A review of greenwashing research and implications for the voluntary-mandatory transition of CSR

Abstract

As public concern over greenwashing has grown in the last two decades, academic research has increased correspondingly, and there is now a substantial body of research addressing issues related to greenwashing. In this paper, we therefore review and analyze greenwashing research, to provide an evaluation of trends and progress in the field and a synthesis of the empirical and conceptual results presented in existing studies.

Our main finding leading to our theory contribution is the criticism raised in greenwashing research that the entirely voluntary CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) approach facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. The voluntary idea of CSR is still prevalent in the CSR literature and appears to be a grey-zone that creates space for misleading ‘green’ communication.

Consequently, we propose that greenwashing could be better prevented with a combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects. The new paradigm should promote creative and effective corporate CSR initiatives, while at the same time design the limits and the rules for their accomplishments and communication, as firms would risk breaching legislation when overstretching CSR messages.

Introduction

Over the last decades, companies’ instrumental use of green and social claims has become a central topic in the public debate about corporate social responsibility (CSR). In this context, an increasing number of organizations have been accused of “not walking the talk,” which means their CSR claims on environmental or social issues have not been followed or supported by actual corporate activities (Walker & Wan, 2012). Such divergence between socially responsible communication and practices is commonly known as greenwashing.

Three decades after the conceptualization of the term “greenwashing,” the practice has grown enormously (Walker & Wan, 2012) and is now more sophisticated (Theguardian, 2016).

According to Furlow (2010), the proliferation of environmental disinformation has become so common and is of such a concern, that media discourse on greenwashing has parallel increased. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Greenpeace or TerraChoice, assume today the roles of market monitors or “watchdogs.” In addition, the press expresses a growing concern about causes and consequences of greenwashing (Du, 2015). As a result, consumers are increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of corporate environmental claims (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013).

As the public concern over greenwashing has drastically grown in the last two decades, academic research has increased correspondingly, and there is now a substantial body of literature addressing issues related to greenwashing. Indeed, more than 1.315 scholarly articles are currentlyFootnote 1 mentioning the term “greenwashing” or “greenwash”.

Because of the centrality and actuality of the topic in both the public and academic CSR debate, a review of the literature is needed to understand how scholars have conceptualized and discussed the phenomenon. Indeed, different and sometimes contradictory definitions have thus far been provided and more research is needed to categorize the variety of greenwashing discussed in literature as well as its implications and consequences for business and society (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015; Seele & Gatti, 2017). To our knowledge, only one article has reviewed the academic debate around greenwashing. By focusing on the means and ends of greenwashing, the Lyon and Montgomery’s (2015) paper offers valid insights and directions for future research. However, their detailed analysis of the literature needs to be updated, given the fact that it stops in 2013 with a total number of 34 papers. Therefore, by including more than twice as many papers compared to Lyon and Montgomery’s literature review on greenwashing, we aim to expand their analysis in order to identify and discuss new issues in the fields and to provide a structured summary of the empirical and conceptual results presented in existing studies.

Our main finding leading to our theory contribution is the criticism raised in greenwashing literature that a totally voluntary and unregulated CSR approach facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. Indeed, current predominant voluntary approaches create space for grey zones allowing for misleading communications. However, also an exclusive mandatory approach may favor the establishment of grey zones where companies look for ways around the rules. This is particularly true in the today’s interconnected and globalized world, where globalization makes self-organizing processes necessary to solve the deficit in regulation (Scherer et al. 2006).

Building on the discussion about the legality of greenwashing, our paper links to and advanced the debate about the voluntary versus mandatory nature of CSR through the lens of greenwashing scholars, thereby providing insights into a burgeoning paradigm shift towards an integration of the voluntary and mandatory perspectives in the application of CSR and corporate CSR reporting and communication.

The paper suggests that greenwashing could be better prevented with a combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects designed to promote CSR and regulate its application and communication, (which is currently in the process of being developed in several countries).

The paper proceeds as follows: we summarize the methodology applied to select and analyze the academic articles about greenwashing. In sections 3 and 4 we present the main results of our quantitative and qualitative analysis. We then discuss these results to highlight implications and contributions of the greenwashing literature, as well as trends and progress in the field. In the last section, we finally present the main insights of the paper, particularly the theoretical contribution suggesting a reduction of grey zones and an increase in clarity and credibility, to limit the ‘temptation’ to create misleading green messages, which could open the door to accusations of greenwashing.

Method of the systematic literature review

To identify trends and progress in the field and provide a synthesis of the main issues discussed in literature, we conducted an extensive review articles of the literature. Indeed, review articles play a role in discovering critical issues relevant to the topic and in synthesizing the main trends and perspectives discussed as well as the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used (Randolph, 2009).

As Randolph (2009) suggested, when conducting a systematic and reliable literature review, the data collection process should begin with an electronic search of academic databases and the Internet. To identify the academic literature on greenwashing, we therefore employed keyword searches using the ABI/Inform Global database, considered the most comprehensive source of information on business research (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015), and Google Scholar. For the ABI/Inform database, we first began with a general search to assess the dimension of literature citing the term greenwashing. Therefore, we applied the keywords “greenwash” or “greenwashing” to all the fields (including the title, abstract, keywords and full text of articles) and selected English articles published in scholarly journals. A total number of 1.273 articles in the period from 1995 to 2018 were retrieved from this search.Footnote 2 Among the different journals publishing articles about greenwashing, the Journal of Business Ethics represents the top journal in terms of published articles (212 papers), followed by the Journal of Cleaner Production (97), and the Social Responsibility Journal (29). Table 1 reports the list of journals publishing more than 10 articles citing “greenwashing” or “greenwash” to identifying the top journal list of greenwashing research.

Table 1 Analysis of journals

In order to identify articles with a clear focus on the topic, as opposed to those merely citing the term, we restricted our search to papers that mention the search terms in the title or abstract. This selection process yielded 136 scholarly articles. After a content review, 62 articles were excluded from the analysis. Although they mentioned greenwashing in their title and/or abstract, greenwashing did not represent a central construct or variable in these articles, or they presented an English title and abstract, but the article content was not in English.

The same keyword searches were applied to the Google Scholar search engine to detect relevant articles, which were not retrieved by the ABI/Inform search. Twenty scholarly articles not included in the ABI/Inform list were identified and added to our sample. The other articles returned by the Google Scholar search matched the previous sample or comprised non-academic papers. The final list, comprising 94 academic papers,Footnote 3 was updated and finalized on December, 2018.

Quantitative data analysis

To assess the status and development of the academic literature on greenwashing, we first categorized the 94 academic articles according to a set of variables: year of publication, type of research (empirical research, conceptual paper, literature review), methodological approaches (qualitative, quantitative, mixed method), methodological techniques (case study, content analysis, model development, analysis of secondary data, survey research method, experimental research method, focus group, visual sociology technique), scope of research (accounting, business ethics, corporate communication, economics, finance, law, management, marketing, political economics), focus of research (environmental issues, social issues, environmental and social issues, ethical issues), and theoretical framework (instrumental, political, ethical, integrative).

The coding process involved two different coders categorizing the collected articles separately. For all the variables mentioned above, we calculated the intercoder reliability. Among the various indices proposed in the literature, we employed Cohen’s kappa (k), which is generally considered a valid measure to assess the level of agreement among coders in a content analysis. While there is no objective standard indicating acceptable levels of intercoder agreement for k, Landis and Koch (1977) suggest that values lower than 0.20 indicate slight or no agreement, values between 0.21 and 0.40 correspond to a moderate level of agreement, values between 0.61 to 0.80 indicate a substantial agreement, while values higher 0.81 correspond to an almost perfect agreement. The test of the intercoder agreement for k was performed for the main variables considered in the study. The k was significantly different from zero (at the 0.05 level) with coefficients between 0.67 to 1.00, thus indicating an acceptable level of agreement. The detailed of the tests and their results are reported in Appendix.

The analysis of the years of publication reveals that, in general, publications on greenwashing are increasing in number. Before 2007 there were only one or two publications on the topic per year. Since the 2008 they continue to increase, reaching 13 publications in 2018. This seems to be a sign of the current productive status of greenwashing research and supports the idea that the diffusion of greenwashing practices in business fields has been accompanied by a development of related literature.

In relation to the “type of research,” each paper was classified as either “conceptual,” “empirical” or “literature review.” Following Lyon and Montgomery (2015), the conceptual category included those papers discussing philosophical issues, offering frameworks or models for classifying greenwashing related topics, or those developing theories and hypotheses about greenwashing. Empirical papers included both qualitative and quantitative research studies, and they were analyzed in depth to identify the methodological approach and technique used in each study.

As previously mentioned, we only found one literature review revising greenwashing research, which suggests the necessity of deeper analysis of the literature to see how research about the topic is evolving. We also identified one book review. Among the other articles, 32 studies were categorized as conceptual. The remaining 60 articles comprised empirical papers. While conceptual studies show uniform distribution across the publication time frame (1997–2016), empirical papers seem to increase consistently after 2003.

Empirical research about greenwashing was characterized by both qualitative and quantitative methods and by a number of different techniques. In particular, among the 60 empirical papers, 17 studies were based on a qualitative approach, 37 papers on a quantitative approach, while the remaining 10 studies employed a mixed method. Among the different methodological techniques used by greenwashing scholars, the case study method, the experimental research method, and the survey research method were the most widely employed. Figure 1 summarizes the specific techniques of the empirical studies analyzed in our review.

Fig. 1
figure1

Methodological techniques in greenwashing empirical research

Table 2 reports the analysis of the scope of research of the 94 articles. The majority of papers (78.7%) discussed greenwashing in the fields of corporate communication, marketing, and management. It is particularly interesting to note that 12.8% of articles are focused on law and legislation.

Table 2 Analysis of the scope of research

Qualitative data analysis

To better understand how scholars have conceptualized and discussed the phenomenon so far, we also conducted a qualitative content analysis as established in CSR and business ethics research (Seele & Lock, 2015, Lock & Seele, 2016). The main purpose of this analysis was to assess the core findings of empirical and conceptual research. In Table 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 we present the synthesis of our analysis. Therefore, the following tables summarize the main results of greenwashing research and offer a useful instrument for both academics and practitioners to understand what has been discovered so far, and the main trends and progresses in the fields. A more profound reflection on the findings of greenwashing literature is presented in the discussion section.

Table 3 Analysis of research findings related to Category 1
Table 4 Analysis of research findings related to Category 2
Table 5 Analysis of research findings related to Category 3A
Table 6 Analysis of research findings related to Category 3B and 3C
Table 7 Analysis of research findings related to Category 4
Table 8 Analysis of research findings related to Category 5

Discussion and contribution

Our content analysis resulted in the identification of three different themes highly debated in the literature: The meaning of greenwashing, its main consequences, and the recent conceptualization of CSR as a form of regulation to prevent greenwashing practices.

The meaning of greenwashing

Following Lyon and Montgomery (2015), more research is needed to acknowledge the variety of forms and mechanisms related to greenwashing to better understand its meaning. We therefore revise the different definitions presented in literature to identify its main characteristics and the underlying mechanisms of the phenomena.

As claimed by Seele and Gatti (2017), although the literature on greenwashing is expanding, there is not a universally accepted definition of the term, and the concept itself is ambiguously defined. For example, although the majority of scholars consider greenwashing as exclusively dealing with environmental issues (61.6% of the selected articles), other researchers maintain that greenwashing is also related to social issues (38.0% of articles).

Another distinction among greenwashing definitions provided in the academic literature relates to the degree of falsehood implied in the message. Some academics consider greenwashing as false advertising or misleading claims (e.g. Lane, 2010, 2013; Mills, 2009). According to a second group of scholars, greenwashing also includes claims that are neither substantiated by a credible third-party certification nor by evidence (e.g. Alves, 2009; Bazillier & Vauday, 2013). Other researchers note that greenwashing is not typically false communication but rather it is the selective disclosure of positive information about a company’s environmental or social issues without full disclosure of negative information on these aspects (e.g. Kim & Lyon, 2011; Lyon & Maxwell, 2006, 2011; Marquis & Toffel, 2011; Mitchell & Ramey, 2011). According to this view, greenwashing is understood as the obscuration of potentially harmful information by an organization (Mitchell & Ramey, 2011). Therefore, following the selective view, greenwashing is not the same as having a poor record on environmental performance because “a firm can have a poor record without presenting any positive information about itself, or can have a relatively good record while simultaneously promoting its positive actions publicly and failing to discuss its (few) negative environmental impacts” (Lyon & Maxwell, 2006, p.3).

Linder (2010) distinguishes between two major categories of greenwashing definitions: 1) definitions focused on the attributes of the objects, and 2) definitions focused on the process behind the object. In the object attribute view, what is taken into account is the consistency between the attributes of an object and the corporate claims regarding the greenness of the object (Linder, 2010). Therefore, the focus is on the specific object of communication and its characteristics. According to this view greenwashing can be considered “false advertising” (Mills, 2009), “ads and labels that promise more environmental benefit than they deliver” (Dahl, 2010), “unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental or social benefits of a product” (Bazillier & Vauday, 2013). The process attribute view focuses on the communication process. In particular, it takes into account the corporate inputs or efforts that have gone into communicating the greenness of a product, in relation to the efforts to improve the product’s actual green credentials. Examples of process attribute view definitions are the Greenpeace definition (Greenwashing as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”), which is one of the most cited in literature, or the Marquis and Toffel’s definition: “Greenwashing is the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities” (Marquis & Toffel, 2011, p.19). In relation to the process attribute view, Mitchell and Ramey (2011) specify that to be considered greenwashing, the “act” has to be deliberate, implying the intentionality of the deception (Nyilasy, Gangadharbatla, & Paladino, 2012).

Seele and Gatti (2017) recognize another fundamental aspect of greenwashing: it is a phenomenon in the eye of the beholder. According to the authors, regardless of the level of falsehood of corporate CSR communication, greenwashing only exists when a message is highlighted as such by NGOs, the media, or other stakeholders. Therefore, the accusation from a third party is an essential aspect of greenwashing.

Consequences of greenwashing

Our qualitative analysis of greenwashing literature has provided a summary of the main consequences of greenwashing, especially for consumers and companies. Tables 4 A and 4B in the previous chapter provide a structured and comprehensive summary of greenwashing consequences discussed in literature, expanding the analysis of Lyon and Montgomery’s article (2015) in light of new studies and research in the field. In the tables, greenwashing consequences are divided into three main groups: A) consumers, B) companies, C) other stakeholders, the environment, and the society at large. The first category presents the effects of greenwashing related to consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and intentions. In the second group, we report internal consequences for companies engaged in greenwashing. Group three includes the more general effects of greenwashing in terms of environmental and social aspects or related to other stakeholders such as employees or stockholders.

Below we briefly discuss the main consequences identify by our analysis and reported in the tables:

First of all, the research literature agrees that the practice of greenwashing is associated with several negative effects on consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and intentions (Table 4 A). although evoking nature may mislead consumers in their evaluation of corporate image, especially if they are not experts on CSR related issues (Parguel, Benoît-Moreau, & Larceneux, 2011), the wide range of greenwashing cases is causing consumers to become increasingly skeptical of corporate CSR claims (Aji & Sutikno, 2015; Rahman, Park, & Geng-qing Chi, 2015). As a consequence, superficial and sporadic CSR communication may have a negative influence on consumers’ purchase intentions, regardless of the level of corporate involvement in greenwashing practices (Rahman et al., 2015). This widespread skepticism, probably means that consumers perceive less greenwashing when a company communicates an economic motive than when it communicates an environmental or social motive for an investment (de Vries, Terwel, Ellemers, & Daamen, 2015), surprising as this may be.

In addition, greenwashing increases consumers’ confusion about corporate CSR (Furlow, 2010) and it seems to have a negative effect on consumers’ brand evaluation (Parguel et al., 2011), consumers’ opinion about corporate environmental sustainability (Mason & Mason, 2012), consumer green trust (Chen & Chang, 2013), consumer word of mouth (Chen, Lin, & Chang, 2014), and also on consumers’ brand attitudes (Nyilasy et al., 2012; Nyilasy, Gangadharbatla, & Paladino, 2014).

Greenwashing also seems to negatively affect the firm’s financial performance (Table 4 B). Indeed, although it may sometimes be used to successfully deflect attention away from negative CSR behavior (Du et al., 2016), it often seems to harm firms financially (Du, 2015; Walker & Wan, 2012), especially in the current context characterized by a high scrutiny from civil society and growing stakeholder skepticism. In particular, it negatively affects corporate legitimacy and reputation, even when corporate communication is not misleading, and the greenwashing accusation is false (Seele & Gatti, 2017). Indeed, corporate CSR communications may backfire on the company if the public feels that the company is engaging in self-promotion (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013). As a consequence, companies are now less motivated to become less environmentally harmful because it does not pay off. Therefore, following Furlow (2010), greenwashing will ultimately hurt not only consumers and companies, but also the environment.

CSR regulations to prevent greenwashing practices

Greenwashing literature recognizes the importance of NGOs and activist groups in detecting greenwashing (Bazillier & Vauday, 2013; Lyon & Maxwell, 2011; Seele & Gatti, 2017) but it also suggests that some firms may disclose less about their CSR because of the fear of being accused of greenwashing (Lyon & Maxwell, 2011). Nevertheless, scholars agree that the first condition to decrease greenwashing is through the refinement and development of a CSR regulatory system. The interesting point here is that they do not seem to embrace the mainstream view discussed in CSR literature claiming the predominance of the voluntary nature of CSR. Indeed, according to greenwashing scholars, defining and treating CSR essentially as a voluntary practice facilitates the diffusion of greenwashing. As Alves (2009) claims, “the volunteer-led CSR paradigm of the last decades has both coddled and promoted the proliferation of green spin and greenwashing.” With the exception of Mahoney, Thorne, Cecil, and LaGore (2013), who suggest that voluntary CSR reports are generally a sign of high-quality CSR and not greenwashing, all the other articles we analyzed look at the voluntary dimension of CSR, supported by the majority of CSR definitions (Dahlsrud, 2008), as one of the main antecedents favoring the diffusion of greenwashing.

In addition, as summarized in Table 5, greenwashing scholars argue that “a reduction of greenwashing activities requires at least industry-wide codes of practices and, at best, regulation” (Smith & Font, 2014). Greenwashing literature is indeed consistent in stressing the necessity of involving regulators and policy makers for developing CSR standards and legislation. The range of scholarly suggestions covers pleas for self-regulation bodies (Kirchhoff, 2000) or independent auditing or rating (Huang & Chen, 2015; Parguel et al., 2011) and general demands for standards and regulations (Polonsky, Grau, & Garma, 2010) as well as a clear call for “federal regulations” (Feinstein, 2013) as the strongest form of third-party involvement. According to greenwashing scholars, this would substantially decrease greenwashing practices and would ultimately lead to a more trustworthy form of CSR.

As noted above, the perspective adopted by scholars seems not to be in line with the traditional mainstream approach of CSR research. In CSR literature, the principle of voluntarism is predominant and implies that responsible business activities are discretionary and reach beyond the rule of law. Conceptually, this principle implies that governments have a minimal role, if any, in the CSR debate (Dentchev, Balen, & Haezenck, 2015). However, the exclusion of mandatory aspects in the definition of CSR has recently been challenged by a number of scholars (Waagstein, 2011). Moreover, a growing number of governments are enacting CSR laws and regulations (e.g. Indonesia – 2007, Denmark – 2008, France – 2010, Philippines and Spain – 2011, Argentina and Brazil – 2012, India and Norway – 2013, European Union 2014), thus creating a debate as to whether the nature of CSR is exclusively voluntary or may include a mandatory dimension. Even the European Union has changed its well-known definition of CSR (“concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” Commission of the European Communities, 2001) to include a mandatory dimension, introducing the importance of policy measures and regulations to prevent unfair CSR and greenwashing behaviours.

In this debate, greenwashing scholars reflect recent perspectives on the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the CSR definition and practice (Cominetti & Seele, 2016; Gatti, Vishwanath, Seele, & Cottier, 2018; Sheehy, 2015; Waagstein, 2011; Wagner & Seele, 2017). Indeed, they strongly support the necessary development of mandatory elements for the establishment of a “better”, more credible CSR. In this respect, they provide a considerable contribution to the general discussion about voluntary versus mandatory CSR by explicitly addressing the consequences of a totally voluntary approach in terms of greenwashing, and, above all, by proposing and discussing specific regulatory solutions to reduce such practices.

Kirchhoff (2000), for example, tests a model for preventing greenwashing based on the introduction of a fine into the environmental labeling system. To work effectively, the model requires a third-party independent labeling authority, whose presence seems to decrease greenwashing and favor compliance to CSR standards. The introduction of an external authority to monitor CSR is also supported by Laufer (2003), who introduces the concept of tripartism, i.e. the integration of a third party into the regulatory arena, as a solution against greenwashing.

In relation to environment labeling or eco-marks, Lane (2010) offers an in-depth analysis of enforcement techniques to prevent greenwashing in eco-mark systems. Indeed, though eco-marks’ core purpose is to protect and inform consumers about the products’ green credentials, sometimes they are used by companies to mislead consumers about the environmental characteristics of a product. Following Lane (2010), public anti-greenwashing enforcement achieves better results than private eco-mark enforcement or consumers’ actions. In particular, government agency investigations and certification mark enforcement litigation seem to be the most successful mechanisms against the improper use of eco-marks.

Also claim that civil actions by consumers and investors are not enough to prevent greenwashing and that CSR related communication should be more strongly policed. Remedies under false advertising laws and under securities fraud laws should be investigated and further developed (Cherry and Sneirson, 2011).

In general, greenwashing scholars seem to agree that an independent environmental audit system and additional public regulation may prevent companies with poor environmental performance to engage in greenwashing (Huang & Chen, 2015).

Combing the voluntary and mandatory dimensions to promote CSR

Summing up the contribution of greenwashing literature to the ongoing debate about voluntary versus mandatory CSR, we can see strong support for the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the regulations of CSR.

Voluntary CSR is often considered in literature as a solution to corporate social and environmental externalities caused by globalized companies. The advent of globalization has complicated the regulation of corporate behaviors at the point that governmental regulations are no more capable of preventing several unsustainable behaviors. Not only voluntary CSR is discussed in literature as a solution to a deficit in regulation, but also it is often considered the most efficient way to address social problems. As claimed by Sheehy (2015), the voluntary dimension of CSR is motivated by the argument that “individual firms are better able to find ways to implement CSR and reduce their social costs more effectively when tailored by management to the specific industry or firm in which it is being applied” (p. 640). However, the voluntary approach is also criticized by CSR scholars for promoting free-riding behaviors and for the impossibility to sanction transgressions (O’Neill, 2007). Following Lock and Seele (2016), voluntary CSR may also question the transparency and credibility of CSR communication, given that companies are free to communicate what they want and how they want. A grey zone is thereby established that reinforces tendencies towards exaggeration and self-promotion, which might also include false information (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013; Seele & Gatti, 2017), and thereby enlarges the risk of reputational damage. A growing culture of self-promotion and falsehood (or the perception of such) increases the chances of the misinterpretation of CSR by consumers and other stakeholders and it increases consumer disorientation and skepticism (Furlow, 2010; Rahman et al., 2015).

It is important to note that also mandatory CSR per se may create grey zone areas where parties look for ways around the rules. For example, Wang et al. (2016) suggests that mandatory CSR may contribute to an unfair allocation of corporate CSR resources to personal projects and initiatives (with a limited social value). At an extreme case, it can “become a cover for graft and corruption by funding local political projects or organizations” (Wang et al. 2016, p. 540).

To reduce and prevent the diffusion of greenwashing, we therefore propose, in line with greenwashing research and institutional theorists (e.g. Sheehy, 2015; Waagstein, 2011), a paradigm shift integrating both the voluntary and mandatory dimensions of CSR.

As suggested by the European Commission, in the development of CSR “public authorities should play a supporting role through a smart mix of voluntary policy measures and, where necessary, complementary regulation” (European Commission (2011) 681). The introduction of reporting and communication standards and the establishment of independent environmental audit systems, as supported by greenwashing scholars, would therefore help to reduce the grey zone creates by the predominant totally voluntary approach. Finally, a reduction in greenwashing has the potential to increase trust in corporate green behavior and help to positively impact social welfare (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015).

The new paradigm is based on a new CSR definition integrating both voluntary and mandatory aspects. Indeed, Sheehy (2015) claims that CSR consists of “private international law norms seeking to ameliorate and mitigate the social harms of and to promote public good by industrial organisations” (p. 639). Following the institutional framework, CSR can be therefore defined “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015), regardless the fact that the “regulation” is a private, self-regulated initiative, or it is publicly imposed. This means that each specific social system (characterized by specific values, norms, and regulations) is responsible for shaping a specific form of CSR, characterized by a unique combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects. Thus, there is not a priori the perfect combination of voluntary and mandatory aspects, but each context designs a specific form of CSR. In India, for example, The Indian Companies Act 2013 legally requires firms to spend a percentage of their profits on CSR activities, while in US current CSR primarily consists of private business self-regulation (Gatti et al., 2018).

The new conceptualization of CSR “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015) proposed by institutional theorists and supported by greenwashing scholars as a way to prevent greenwashing, has a number of implications. First, it implies the transition from the idea of CSR as an internal management tool toward a broader understanding of the business and society relationship (Gatti et al., 2018). This shift in perspective has consequences at both a practical and theoretical level. Firms should be prepared to professionalize their CSR effort beyond mere impression management, or corporate communication practices. CSR activities should be increasingly treated as legal responsibilities, not just as marketing-related projects. Professionals in the field of law should therefore collaborate with experts in public relations and communication to ensure the transition of CSR as a form of regulation.

Also on the scholarly level the CSR transition toward regulation implies a shift in the competencies of CSR scholars. While for years CSR issues have been mainly related to business ethics, management and marketing studies, we expect now that the debate would be also addressed (more) in the field of law.

As previously claimed, the introduction of standards to regulate CSR does not mean the complete negation of a voluntary dimension. As discussed by Sheehy (2015), considering CSR as a form of regulation does not merely imply a collection of mandatory rules imposed by public authorities to regulate firms’ societal and environmental harms. Indeed, it also include self-regulation. As reported by Cominetti and Seele (2016), at the moment 88.2% of CSR standards consist of soft law initiatives, that is, self-regulated standards supported by the firms themselves, as for example the United Nations (UN) Global Compact. Firms can voluntarily adopt the UN Global Compact’s principles, with the sole obligation of communicating every year their progress about human rights and environmental issues.

Conclusions

By reviewing existing greenwashing literature, this paper provides an instrument for greenwashing scholars and practitioners to better understand the main implications and characteristics of the phenomenon. Moreover, by presenting and discussing greenwashing literature, it also contributes to the refining of CSR theory by encouraging reflection on the relationship between CSR and regulation.

First, it offers a picture of the current status of research into greenwashing, showing where and how the field is evolving. In particular, our quantitative analysis shows the current flourishing of greenwashing research and the centrality of the theme within the broader CSR debate. It also reports the variety of subjects addressing the topic, the main methodological techniques applied in the field, and the principal theoretical approaches of greenwashing scholars. This analysis reveals the interdisciplinary state of the field, characterized by a mix of methods, frameworks, and approaches.

Secondly, the presentation of results and findings of greenwashing research, especially the tables provided in section 4, offers a summary that can be used by practitioners to evaluate the consequences and implications of corporate engagement in such practices. In particular, although greenwashing may sometimes be successfully used to influence consumers’ perception about the firm’s CSR and deflect attention away from negative behaviors, the risk of negative effects on consumers’ attitudes, and more generally on the firm’s performance, is increasing. This is especially true in the current context, characterized by a high level of scrutiny and skepticism. Therefore, greenwashing may finally backfire on the company and dramatically decrease its corporate reputation, leading to a reduction of corporate legitimacy resulting eventually in a legitimacy crisis.

Thirdly, the paper also contributes to the general debate about the voluntary versus mandatory nature of CSR. Greenwashing research consistently supports the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the conceptualization of CSR, which contradicts the traditional CSR paradigm exclusively based on the principle of voluntarism. Our analysis of the literature, therefore, contributes to the refinement of the theory and conceptualization of CSR because it highlights the implications and consequences of a totally voluntary approach, and strongly supports the inclusion of mandatory solutions proposed by greenwashing scholars, which would favor the implementation of a level playing field and thus, a more credible form of CSR. Understanding CSR “as a form of regulation” (Sheehy, 2015), may effectively increase businesses’ ability to engage in CSR and defend themselves from unwarranted attacks (Sheehy, 2015). Even when CSR regulation is expressed as a private industry self-regulation and not as public law, it can contribute to improving corporate practice. For example, certification (such as the GRI, SA8000, and ISO26000) (defined by the ISO organization as “the provision by an independent body of written assurance (a certificate) that the product service or system in question meets specific requirements”. [ISO organization. Retrived Jan 25 from: http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards/certification.htm).] is an important tool for companies to show their commitment with respect to a specific CSR standard (Knebel & Seele, 2015).

While it is not realistic to think that a new approach to CSR may finally eradicate all the unfair and controversial behaviors, the integration of mandatory and voluntary aspects in the field, as supported by this research, aims at establishing more favorable conditions for the diffusion of good practices and a fair and transparent CSR communication. Indeed, we believe that the inclusion of mandatory aspects in the CSR conceptualization implies a change in the practice. Practitioners in the field of marketing and public relations should prepare to professionalize CSR beyond mere impression management, in favor of a more transparent and controllable practice, subject to different forms of regulations and standards such as GRI (Wagner & Seele, 2017), or the EU directive on mandatory reporting (2014/95/EU), requiring companies with more than 500 employees listed on EU markets to disclose in their annual reports their progresses related to environmental and social issues. The introduction of a legal dimension in the field could in turn decrease skepticism and improve the relationship between organizations and their public. However, it requires the acceptance that the CSR debate is not only a topic in the field of management and corporate communication, but is entering new spheres related to the legal, ethical and political dimensions of business. As recently claimed by Gatti et al. (2018), “this transition asks for theory development in the direction of CSR compliance”. Indeed, especially self-regulatory standards as codes of conducts or private corporate initiatives cannot rely on public sanctions. It is therefore fundamental to identify mechanisms to promote compliance. To this regard, as discussed in the previous chapter, greenwashing scholars contribute to the debate by identify a number of mechanisms and initiatives (such as tripartism, public anti-greenwashing enforcement and certification mark infringement litigation) that decrease greenwashing and ensure a more transparent and fair CSR communication.

This study involves some limitations that open up room for future research. The major limitation is probably linked to the selection of our data set. First, the selection of relevant articles is primarily based on specific keywords (greenwash/greenwashing). One shortcoming of this method is that some relevant articles that use labels other than these keywords are not included in the dataset. In particular, new and less established terms, such as CSR washing, poorwashing, bluewashing or corporate hypocrisy (Janney & Gove, 2011) are slowly spreading among scholars to indicate greenwashing practices dealing with social and humanitarian issues. Another phenomenon very related to greenwashing is indicated by the term symbolic conformity (Jamali, 2010), also known as ceremonial conformity or decoupling of implementation from certification (Aravind & Christmann, 2011; Christmann & Taylor, 2006; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). The concept refers to the phenomenon of obtaining and showing standard certification without continuously complying with the requirements prescribed by the certification (Aravind & Christmann, 2011).

Secondly, in this study, we restricted our selection to papers that mention the search terms in the title or abstract. Although this choice was justified by the intent of identifying those articles with a clear focus on the topic, by narrowing the search in this way we may have excluded some interesting examples or discussions. To extend the analysis of greenwashing research, similar concepts and terms should, therefore, be considered in the selection of greenwashing related literature. In addition, greenwashing-related discussions presented in more general CSR and corporate communication papers should be included in the content analysis.

Future research should try to enlarge the scope of study by also including monographs or book chapters, which were not considered in this review. Additionally, by expanding the analysis to non-English research, future studies may also explore cultural differences in the interpretation and analysis of greenwashing.

In relation to future research, we also suggest maintaining the interdisciplinary character of the field, because the literature may benefit from the variety of approaches and perspectives provided by different subjects and methods and, as this review shows, it may generate original and significant contributions also to the CSR debate and, more generally, to the discussion about the relationship between business and society. Indeed, we recognize that one of the main characteristics and strengths of greenwashing research is that the issue is not limited to a specific framework or approach but is, on the contrary, addressed from different angles. For instance, while marketing scholars have studied the effects of greenwashing on consumers and companies, academics in the field of law have mainly concentrated on the relationship between regulation and CSR, providing practical solutions for reducing greenwashing, while management scholars have offered an interesting analysis of the institutional framework surrounding greenwashing phenomena, which is useful to understand the conditions and the context of greenwashing. In combination, these different contributions have offered a broad picture of the phenomenon and have allowed an understanding of its nature. We, therefore, suggest increasing the interdisciplinary dialogue that characterizes greenwashing literature in order to encourage the production of new and original insights.

Availability of data and materials

The full list of articles analyzed in this review article is available upon request from the authors.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Data retrieved from ABI/Inform database. English scholarly articles. 14-03-2019.

  2. 2.

    This search included articles published before December 31rst 2018.

  3. 3.

    For space constraints the full list is not included in the article. The full list is available upon request from the authors.

Abbreviations

CSR:

Corporate social responsibility

NGOs:

Non-governmental organizations

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Acknowledgements

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Funding

This study was founded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. This publication was made possible by the open access funding of Hochschule Darmstadt - University of Applied Sciences.

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LG performed the collection of data (articles). All the authors analyzed and interpreted the material discussed in this review articles. LG was a major contributor in writing the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript for submission.

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Correspondence to Lucia Gatti.

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Appendix

Appendix

Table 9 Intercoder agreement for the different variables: Cohen’s Kappa tests

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Gatti, L., Seele, P. & Rademacher, L. Grey zone in – greenwash out. A review of greenwashing research and implications for the voluntary-mandatory transition of CSR. Int J Corporate Soc Responsibility 4, 6 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40991-019-0044-9

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Keywords

  • Greenwashing
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • CSR communication
  • Mandatory CSR