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What is GreenWashing???
april 13, 2009, 1:19 pm
Filed under: What is Greenwashing?


Toyota Leaf

Toyota Leaf


Examples greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a marketing technique in which a company falsely claims environmental responsibility. As more and more consumers are concerned about sustainability and the environment, a growing number of corporations have stepped up, claiming to be improving their environmental practices and reforming their industries. While this may certainly be true in some cases, many of the claims of environmental stewardship made by companies are actually false, or at the very least extremely misleading.

The term is a portmanteau of “whitewashing,” in the sense of covering up misdeeds, and “green,” a common term used to refer to environmentally sound practices. The green movement encompasses food sources, building, energy, and everything in between, and it also represents a substantial source of potential income. A growing number of citizens, especially in the First World, are willing to pay a premium for “green” products. In addition to environmentally sensitive companies who are genuinely trying to practice business ethically, a number of corporations launch extensive greenwashing campaigns detailing all the ways in which they are environmentally responsible. For unwary consumers, the glossy greenwashing ads can suggest that the company is reputable and responsible.

Many companies in traditionally environmentally controversial industries have launched greenwashing campaigns. Numerous oil and car companies, for example, have glossy ads in major magazines touting their environmental programs. Other companies use misleading labeling on their products, or astroturf organizations to support their claims of environmentally sound business practices. Many greenwashing campaigns are nothing more than a highly deceptive marketing technique. This makes it doubly difficult for companies which actually are trying to practice business ethically, as it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish between greenwashing and truthful advertising.

Several things can be used as clues for consumers to detect a greenwashing campaign. The first thing to do is to follow the money and paper trails of the company. Consumers should seek out donation records, for example, seeing what kind of organizations the company donates and belongs to. This can also uncover astroturfing organizations, and may provide a more complete picture of the company’s business ethic. Consumers should also seek out information which is not discussed in the greenwashing campaign, such as statistics on pollution from that company’s factories.

Another important clue is consistency. Many companies announce a new environmentally program with great fanfare and then quietly cut the funding. Consumers remember the advertisements touting the program, but do not check to see whether or not the company followed through. In addition, consumers should look at the practices of the company overseas, especially in nations where environmental laws are lax. If the companies claims of sound environmental practices are not the case overseas, the company is probably greenwashing.

  1. Hidden Trade Off, in which companies highlight one eco-friendly attribute, and ignore their product’s other (potentially more significant) environmental concerns.
  2. No Proof, which, just like it sounds, involves claims that can’t be verified (the report found 26% of environmental claims fall into this category).
  3. Vagueness — terms like “chemical-free,” or “non-toxic,” which are both universally true, and universally false depending on your interpretation.
  4. Irrelevance, when companies make claims that — while true — are unhelpful (like “CFC-free,” when CFCs have been banned for almost 30 years).
  5. Lesser of Two Evils — like “green” herbicides, which ignores the fact that herbicides in any form aren’t good for the environment.
  6. Fibbing. The most obvious, in which companies flat out lie (less than 1% of companies make this mistake, but does happen).

Feel like you’ve been misled? Swindled even? I do. I don’t know how many times I’ve casually chosen the “green” or “organic” version of two products, just because I assumed it “must be at least a little better for the planet.” According to the report, these feelings have significant consequences:

  • When consumers are misled, potential environmental benefits associated with “greenwashed” purchases are squandered.
  • The introduction of new, better and legitimate eco-friendly products is stifled by this inaccurate marketing.
  • Consumers, fooled often enough by greenwashing, may simply give up on green buying all together — thus destroying the current financial incentive for companies to make their products less harmful to the planet.