Today, it seems every company wants to be seen as a champion of sustainability. “Going green” is no longer just the right thing to do; it has become a powerful selling point. But in this rush to go green, some companies have mastered the art of talking the talk without walking the walk. Welcome to the slippery slope of greenwashing, where the facade of environmental friendliness often hides a murky reality.

>> While over 80% of UK-listed FTSE 100 firms say they are committed to becoming Net Zero by 2050, the majority (95%) have not yet publicly disclosed detailed, actionable transition plans. 

Greenwashing is essentially a marketing ploy through which companies overstate or flat-out lie about their eco-friendliness to win over eco-conscious consumers. However, unlike consumer products where a misleading “eco-friendly” label can be quickly scrutinised, detecting greenwashing in engineering – a sector that relies on complex supply chains and is brimming with technical jargon – can prove trickier.

So how can clients and consumers outsmart greenwashing in engineering projects, and what can companies do to ensure they are coupling bold goals with impactful initiatives and unwavering transparency?

First, it’s worth understanding some of the key tricks of the trade. The Anti-Greenwash Charter, who are taking a stand against greenwashing across all industries, shared insights on the four most common types of greenwashing they’ve witnessed in engineering:

  1. Micro-Efficiency vs. Macro-Impact

Some companies tout tiny efficiency gains as major environmental breakthroughs. For instance, a minor improvement in the energy efficiency of a process might be highlighted as a big green win, while the overall carbon footprint of the project remains alarmingly high.

  1. Hidden Costs and Half-Truths

Engineering projects often selectively disclose their impact or present partial truths. For example they might boast about using recycled materials but won’t mention the pollution from transporting these materials halfway around the world. 

  1. The Mirage of Green Certifications

There’s a dizzying array of certifications and eco-labels out there (BREAMM, LEED, ISO 14000, SBTi, WELL Building Standard, and Living Building Challenge, to name a few), and some are more trustworthy than others. A company might slap a green label on a project, but the standards behind these labels can be dubious or self-regulated. Certification shopping is a real thing—where companies pick the easiest standards to meet and flaunt them while ignoring more rigorous ones.

  1. Big Promises, Vague Details

Terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” or “green technology” are thrown around a lot without much backing. If a company’s claims feel like they’re full of hot air, ask for the specifics. True sustainability efforts will have data and concrete examples, not just flashy words.


Spotting greenwashing in the wild

So, how can you as a consumer, client, or a concerned engineer spot these tricks? Here’s a quick guide to cutting through the green fog:

Demand transparency: Ask for detailed information about the sustainability practices and specific impacts of a project. Companies serious about their environmental footprint will be open and detailed about their processes.

Look for trustworthy certifications: Check the credibility of certifications and eco-labels. Reliable certifications come from well-known, independent bodies with stringent standards. If a certification is unfamiliar or seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Educate yourself: Stay informed about the latest in sustainable engineering practices. This will arm you with the knowledge to spot vague or misleading claims. Understanding the basics of green technologies and their impacts can help you ask the right questions.

Engage experts: If you’re making decisions based on green claims, consulting with environmental experts or organisations that specialise in sustainability assessments can provide an unbiased perspective.

Honest engineering: Best practices

To ensure green claims are more than just marketing fluff, engineering firms can adopt several best practices:

Get specific: Provide concrete, measurable data to back up sustainability claims.

Seek out third-party audits: Regular independent audits can provide an objective assessment and enhance credibility.

Full disclosure, even when it’s uncomfortable: Be transparent about all aspects of a project, including any potential negative environmental impacts.

Building Sustainability In Brand Marketing: Interview… | Upsiide
Oatly share an honest review of their practices in their annual sustainability report. Sustainability advisor and engineer, Georgia Elliott-Smith, shares her reflections on the company’s commitment to transparency on LinkedIn.

Commit to continuous improvement: Show a commitment to ongoing sustainability improvements and keep stakeholders updated. As environmental standards are constantly evolving, employees – from the engineers working on projects to the communications professionals articulating their impacts – must be encouraged to keep up with the current landscape to avoid unintentional greenwashing.

Invest in people: It is ultimately people calling the shots around how your business functions day-to-day, as well as how ambitious you are willing to be with your sustainability goals. Invest in people with the passion and capability to transition your practices and culture, like you would for any other key business function.

Be bold and keep your head up: Aspirations should not wane in the face of greenwashing concerns. Avoiding setting bold goals, or under-communicating your environmental efforts to avoid scrutiny (enter: a new phenomenon, greenhushing), will not pave the way to systemic change. We need change-makers (like you!) to help move the needle.

On the horizon

The future of greenwashing detection

Technology is making it easier to see through greenwashing. Tools like blockchain for supply chain transparency and AI-driven data analytics for lifecycle assessment are emerging. For engineering companies, this shift means that full supply chain transparency will become a standard expectation, not a bonus.

People and planet: Seeking climate justice

There’s a growing recognition that environmental impacts aren’t just about carbon footprints but also about equity. Engineering projects often have disparate impacts on different communities. A project might be “green” in terms of emissions but could disproportionately harm vulnerable communities through pollution or displacement. Future conversations around greenwashing will need to address these justice dimensions more robustly.

The Anti-Greenwash Charter: Leading the way

The Anti-Greenwash Charter are pushing for transparency and accountability. They offer a platform for whistleblowers, provide tools for better practices, and set clear, enforceable standards for sustainability claims, supporting companies that are genuinely striving to be green. 

At Engineers Without Borders UK, we’re delighted to be an official supporter of The Anti-Greenwash Charter. Interested parties can join us in supporting the Charter by:  

  1. Signing the Charter: Committing to uphold its standards and principles.  
  2. Providing financial support: Donating to fund research, advocacy, and education initiatives.  
  3. Spreading awareness: Promoting the Charter’s mission and goals within your networks.  
  4. Engaging in dialogue: Participating in forums and discussions to share best practices and learn from others. 
“We are excited to work with Engineers Without Borders UK because of their commitment to creating sustainable engineering solutions that address global challenges. The organisation’s focus on education, innovation, and community engagement aligns perfectly with our mission to promote transparency and accountability in sustainability practices. Together, we can drive meaningful change and set new standards for environmental  responsibility in the engineering sector.”

Charlie Martin, Co-Founder and CEO of The Anti-Greenwash Charter

Honesty over perfection

Being green isn’t about perfect credentials; it’s about honest, continuous effort towards improvement. Greenwashing can be tempting in a world eager to secure a sustainable future, but it’s a shortcut that ultimately leads nowhere. 

Embracing professional value, i.e. working with integrity, is essential in this context. At Engineers Without Borders UK, we define this critical competency as prioritising social and environmental impact within decision-making and critically reflecting on the role and responsibility of engineering to positively and negatively affect societal change. This principle should underpin all efforts to ensure sustainability is genuinely integrated into corporate actions and not just a marketing ploy.

Let’s keep pushing past the green facade and aim for the true heart of sustainability—one honest claim at a time.


This piece has been written as part of a 12-month campaign exploring the 12 competencies of globally responsible engineering identified in our Competency Compass. Each month, you can expect thought leadership content, ranging from panel discussions to video interviews to articles, focussed on one of the 12 competencies. Sign up to our newsletter to ensure you don’t miss anything!