Greenwashing redux

6 04 2011

Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Wikipedia defines greenwashing as a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

Just the fact that we’re exploring this concept means that there is a recognition that the planet is in trouble, and many of us have some kind of intention to do something about it, even though what we do might be very small.  Companies want to show consumers that their products are “green” so the consumers  can buy their stuff as usual while still feeling like they’re helping the Earth.  According to TerraChoice, there are 73% more products claiming green credentials on the market today than in 2009.   But  “green cons­umerism” is an oxymoron, like “organic cigarettes”.  Buying stuff is simply bad for the environment –  all this stuff has to be manufactured from other stuff we take from the Earth one way or another.  Manufacturing requires energy.  Shipping the products requires energy.

TreeHugger (and Planet Greener) Lloyd Alter said it best:  “We just use too much of everything – too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money…the key to sustainability is to simply use less.”

So the argument really begins and ends with us.  We – consumers – should really step up to the plate and make some sacrifices rather than shifting the burden entirely onto companies to produce green products so we can feel good about buying them.

On the other hand, it’s not reasonable to think that people will stop buying stuff, or that companies would not continue to make stuff.  So  as Jeff Hollander of Seventh Generation says, “We should absolutely not support green products from companies that use them to distract us from their larger negative environmental and social impacts. We need systemically green companies to address the challenges we face, not business-as-usual companies that hold up one green hand while hiding another toxic, CO2-emitting, waste-producing one behind their backs.”

But how do we know what is greenwash?

Following the Earth Summit in 1992, Greenpeace came up with criteria which it uses to define “greenwash”, defined as the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.   The following is from the Greenpeace web site:

While accepting that there will never be a perfect litmus test for “greenwash”, and in the hope of encouraging greater public debate on the issue, Greenpeace offers the following 4 Point “CARE” check list. “CARE” stands for Core business; Advertising record; Research & development funding; and Environmental lobbying. A corporation which fails on any of the four tests below is probably in the “greenwash” business.

1. Core Business

If a company’s core (or main) business is based primarily on an activity which has been identified as significantly contributing to environmental pollution or destruction, there is a strong presumption that any assertions that it supports environmentally sustainable development are greenwash.

For example, oil and coal companies, whose products have been determined by UN scientists to be the largest source of man-made greenhouse gases, are by definition engaged in an environmentally unsustainable business. Scientists tell us that each ton of coal or barrel of oil burned adds to the risk of dangerous climate change, which over 160 countries have pledged to prevent in an international treaty. In short, there is a fundamental contradiction between the environmental (and legal) requirement to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), and the production and sale of increasing quantities of coal and oil, the main sources of CO2.

Similarly, forestry companies which log in ancient forests, the richest terrestrial reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet, make it almost impossible to implement the commitments made by 165 countries to protect species in 1992 international Convention of Biological Diversity. Currently, it is estimated that 50-100 species become extinct each day, and forest clearing is a major contributor. This is another example of how a core business can be in fundamental contradiction with a sustainable environment.

In some cases, companies with a highly destructive core business have launched or expanded initiatives for cleaner or less destructive processes and products. Oil companies moving into solar energy is an example. This trend is to be strongly encouraged. However, Greenpeace believes that such measures warrant the “greenwashing” tag unless the parent company publicly acknowledges the fundamental unsustainability of the core business, and makes a serious commitment to phasing out of those activities and towards the cleaner business within a near-term timeframe. (See also “Research and Development”, below).

2. Advertising Practice

Corporate advertising budgets can be huge and their effects on shaping consumer behaviour enormous. It is understood that at least ten corporations have annual advertising budgets of over US$ 1 billion each. Collectively, global advertising budgets run into many billions of dollars, significantly more than most governments and corporations spend on environmental improvement. This fact alone justifies continuous and detailed public scrutiny of the advertising practice and claims of industry.

With this power goes a responsibility that cannot be regulated alone by local advertising standards. Corporations must assume the responsibility for informing the public about the environmental impacts of buying and using their products. Many public opinion polls show that consumers would like to be given a wider choice in products, and are even prepared to pay more for “greener” products.

The “greenwash” tag applies to any corporations which use the media to make environmental claims about one or more of their cleaner products, while continuing “business as usual” practices which rely, for example, on large amounts of natural capital, are energy intensive or inefficient, or which involve production and release of toxic chemicals.

Use of the media by corporations for public debate about whether certain practices are more or less sustainable may represent a genuine attempt to inform and educate. However, where large advertising budgets and slick campaigns appear to justify maintenance of “business as usual” practices which have been widely questioned by environmental scientists, the “greenwash” tag might also be applicable. In other words – their green spin outweighs green R&D spending!

3. Research and Development (R&D)

Large corporations frequently have large funds set aside for R&D. These are used to identify and bring into production new products and manufacturing processes. Here, the “greenwash” test is to what extent these budgets are allocated to developing practices which are more sustainable, or are simply reinforcing old, unsustainable practices.

In view of the size and purpose of these funds, which can easily amount to many millions of dollars, and the fact that a high proportion of the world’s scientists now work for industry, there is a special opportunity for use of corporate R&D in the development of cleaner technologies.

For example, a paper manufacturing corporation which spends most or all of its R&D budget on developing a closed cycle production process which eliminates use of chlorine, minimises use of water and energy, and avoids use of old growth forest as feedstock is moving in the right direction.

By contrast, a coal power utility which spends its R&D on reducing pollutants such as sulphur, without addressing the fact that any combustion of coal creates harmful greenhouse gases and other pollutants, is not using its R&D for sustainable ends. In such a case, only a major commitment towards development of clean renewable energy forms would represent a real contribution towards a more sustainable planet.

4. Environmental Lobbying Record

Corporations which say one thing, and do another, do the entire business sector an injustice. For example, a corporation which presents itself as in favour of pollution reduction loses all credibility if, at the same time, it actively lobbies against measures which are designed to reduce pollution.

Politicians, journalists and NGOs have too often encountered examples of businesses claiming green credentials or aims, but which lobby (frequently through coalition or “front” groups) against increases in taxes or controls on polluting activities. Sometimes there have been threats or examples of closing plants and moving to countries with lower environmental standards. Such “double-speak” entitles any corporation caught in the act to the “greenwash” tag.

By contrast, a responsible corporation will use its name and experience to lobby in favour of policies and practices which reduce pollution. Greenpeace has applauded, and even worked with groups of businesses serious about developing better environmental standards, and urging their adoption by government or industry associations.


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