Between environmental consciousness and greenwashing: The impact of compensation claims in advertising on consumers' perceptions and intentions


Amidst climate change debates, environmental consciousness, and eco-friendly practices, many companies increasingly focus on an environmentally friendly corporate image, carbon-neutral products, and other green advertising strategies.

Numerous companies engage in advertising that suggests to consumers that the environmental harm that the companies cause is offset through environmental measures. For instance, airlines promote abstract compensation measures such as tree planting at an unspecified time and location. Alternatively, they advertise concrete compensation measures like in-flight recycling directly on airplanes. The aim is to neutralize the environmental damage caused by the harmful emissions of flights. However, critics accuse these companies of greenwashing, as there is a lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of these compensation measures. Additionally, advertisements often omit crucial information necessary for consumers to comprehend the extent of the environmental benefits and make informed purchasing decisions.

In the context of two studies, researchers have investigated the impact of abstract and concrete compensation claims in advertising and their influence on consumer perceptions. The findings from these studies raise both theoretical and practical questions, contributing to a deeper understanding of the dynamics between companies and consumers in the realm of eco-friendly advertising.

Article by Annika Arndt (✉

Using a multimethod approach, Ariadne Neureiter, Marlis Stubenvoll, and Jörg Matthes from the University of Vienna conducted two studies to examine the impact of compensation claims in advertising on consumers. The research focused on understanding how consumers perceive greenwashing, what role their environmental knowledge plays in this, and the extent to which this leads to boycotts and unfavorable brand evaluations. The first study – a two-wave panel survey – revealed that claims including abstract compensation promises were perceived as greenwashing, whereas claims including concrete compensation promises were not. Surprisingly, consumers' environmental knowledge did not significantly influence the results. In the second study – an experiment – the authors found that concrete compensation claims were also recognized as greenwashing, albeit significantly less than abstract compensation claims.  Both studies suggest that perceived greenwashing encourages a willingness to participate in boycotts against non-environmentally friendly companies. Additionally, Study 2 revealed that perceived greenwashing reduces purchase intentions for companies associated with greenwashing.

In recent years, advertising has increasingly been characterized by green advertising strategies, environmental awareness, and compensation promises. For consumers, distinguishing between meaningless advertising claims and genuinely relevant messages has become increasingly challenging. According to the study, abstract compensation claims include environmental projects that are temporally distant and generally difficult to verify (such as tree planting). In contrast, concrete compensation claims encompass environmental projects that refer to immediate measures like in-flight recycling. The distinction between concrete and abstract lies not in the clarity of the messages but in the tangibility of the promises – both temporally and spatially.

The present study by communication researchers Ariadne Neureiter, Marlis Stubenvoll, and Jörg Matthes aims to understand better consumers' ability to recognize greenwashing in corporate advertising. The study examines whether consumers can identify greenwashing in compensation claims embedded in advertising and whether environmental knowledge plays a role in detecting greenwashing. Additionally, the study seeks to elucidate the relationships between the perception of greenwashing, brand evaluation, and purchase intent. This ultimately provides insights into whether perceived greenwashing leads consumers to engage in either boycotts – that are characterized by consciously refraining from purchases to inflict harm on environmentally unfriendly companies – or buycotts, where increased purchasing behavior actively rewards companies for their environmental initiatives and, thereby, boosts sales.

Greenwashing and uncertainty: The challenges behind compensation claims in advertising

Following the Gabler Business Dictionary, greenwashing refers to companies' attempts to create a "green image" through communication, advertising, and other PR measures, even when the specific environmental measures often remain unclear. The term relates to environmental friendliness and corporate responsibility that is suggested to consumers but is, in reality, more semblance than substance.

Greenwashing takes various forms. Advertising may spread false information, contain only vague and unverifiable statements, or deceive consumers by concealing the environmentally harmful impacts of a product. Compensation measures increasingly appear as a new facet of greenwashing in advertising messages. Compensation measures – characterized by the promise of being able to compensate for one's impact on the environment – are marked by uncertainty. Calculations are often opaque, and information is only provided incompletely, making it difficult for consumers to understand the actual environmental benefits of compensation measures. The omission of information is referred to in the literature as a greenwashing strategy, where the company's environmental friendliness is emphasized in the advertising message while environmentally harmful circumstances are withheld. Especially companies offering products or services with an environmentally damaging image resort to supposedly green advertising to distract and counteract their environmentally harmful image. Such compensation promises can be found in every industry: airlines, energy companies, fast-food chains, fast fashion companies, or tourism. Sources indicate that these compensation measures are often pure marketing tactics and do not represent real contributions to climate protection.

Nevertheless, not all compensation claims and promises are misleading. For example, an examination of such claims by airlines found that 56% of them were deemed trustworthy by experts because they were credible, transparent, and scientifically understandable. Ariadne Neureiter emphasizes the importance of companies communicating transparently, stating "if consumers perceive greenwashing, it can have negative consequences for the company. Therefore, it should be in the interest of companies to make specific advertising statements that describe significant environmental benefits in detail instead of engaging in greenwashing."

Multimethod approach: Insights from two studies on compensation claims in advertising and greenwashing

The researchers adopted a multimethod approach to gain insights into the impact of compensation claims in advertising, both in the context of daily media consumption and in a controlled setting. In the first study, the panel study, individuals in Austria aged 18 to 69 were surveyed at two points in time. The results reveal that consumers perceive abstract compensation claims by companies as greenwashing, while concrete compensation claims are not seen as such. Environmental knowledge, measured with knowledge questions, did not significantly influence consumers' recognition of greenwashing. According to the study, perceiving greenwashing is not without consequences: The more often participants declared the ads as greenwashing, the more their intention to participate in corporate boycotts increased.

The second study was designed to validate the results of the first study. The experimental design exposed participants to specific concrete and abstract compensation promises through stimuli of advertising messages in a controlled environment. In addition to perceptions of greenwashing, it was observed whether environmental knowledge – measured identically to the first study – helps consumers better recognize greenwashing. Finally, the study investigated whether the perception of greenwashing influences consumers' brand evaluations, purchase intentions, and intentions to join a boycott or buycott.

Conclusion: Greenwashing as a challenge for companies

Consumers face challenges in recognizing greenwashing, especially when it comes to specific compensation promises by companies in advertisements. Ariadne Neureiter summarizes that "for consumers, even those with high environmental knowledge, it is not always easy to identify greenwashing. With the increase in the frequency of supposedly green advertising nowadays, advertising regulations protecting consumers from misleading green advertising are becoming increasingly important." If greenwashing goes unnoticed, supposedly green advertising can lead to a positive evaluation of the product, service, or company, thereby increasing consumers' purchase intentions. This can lead to more environmentally harmful products or services being purchased, as they mistakenly appear to consumers as having the possibility to contribute positively to the environment by buying them. However, if consumers can recognize greenwashing in advertising messages, it harms the company as it can lead to consumers' intention to boycott these companies and reduced purchase intentions.

The study emphasizes the importance of transparent communication from companies. To avoid falling into the trap of greenwashing, companies must describe a significant environmental benefit of their products, services, or company in detail and convey complex background information about compensation measures in their advertising messages clearly and precisely.

Publication details

Neureiter, A., Stubenvoll, M., & Matthes, J. (2023). Is it greenwashing? Environmental compensation claims in advertising, perceived greenwashing, political consumerism, and brand outcomes. Journal of Advertising. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/00913367.2023.2268718

Ariadne Neureiter is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna since January 2024.


Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication & Advertising and Vice-Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna.