What is greenwashing?

29 09 2010

In the past few weeks we’ve been looking at very large corporations which are introducing new products with an environmental spin.  The charge of “greenwashing” could be leveled against these companies, so I thought we’d take a look at how to spot greenwashing.

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.  “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.

Prosperity without growth

27 10 2009

Have you ever heard of the Easterlin Paradox?  It is a theory developed in 1974, which goes something like this:  Money makes you happier until you reach about an average income.  After that, money’s affect on happiness is greatly reduced.  But there are those who argue that “happiness” is a very imprecise science, so maybe  Senator Bobby Kennedy (who might have known what he was talking about) might have gotten closer to the problem:  “Gross Domestic Product measures everything…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The government of Bhutan has been following a policy of Gross National Happiness since 1972, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced that happiness levels would be taken into account when measuring the country’s economic performance.  Whether this happiness component is taken into consideration or not, there seems to be a paradigm shift from neoclassical to ecological economics now underway.  Is it possible that  there is a direct correlation between economics, ecology and happiness?

This new shift is  typified by Tim Jackson and his new book, Prosperity Without Growth, which is a completely revised and updated version of the Sustainable Development Commission report of the same name.  Tim Jackson is a Professor of Sustainable Development in the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) at the University of Surrey.  Since January 2003, Tim has been employed at CES under a research fellowship on the ‘social psychology’ of consumer behavior.   In the last twelve years he has pioneered the development of an ‘adjusted’ measure of economic growth – a ‘green GDP’ – for the UK. He is also an advisor to the UK government as a Commissioner on the Sustainable Development Commission and  is an Associate of the New Economics Foundation.  In other words, no lightweight.

Tim  wrote an article last summer which appeared in Adbusters  (and if you don’t know about Adbusters please check them out – they are working to change the “ way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society”.  It’s entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable”,  based on Prosperity without Growth;  it explores the point at which economic growth becomes uneconomic growth.  The conclusions are disturbing.   Charles Siegel of The Sierra Club says it should be  required reading for everyone working to avoid ecological collapse (click here to read the review) . The article from Adbusters is reproduced below; the entire book will be available November 2 through Earthscan (www.earthscan.co.uk/pwg) or you can read the original report online at http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914:


Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth. For the last five decades the pursuit of growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate, the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.

This extraordinary ramping up of global economic activity has no historical precedent. It’s totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the finite resource base and the fragile ecology we depend on for survival. And it has already been accompanied by the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems.

For the most part, we avoid the stark reality of these numbers. The default assumption is that – financial crises aside – growth will continue indefinitely. Not just for the poorest countries where a better quality of life is undeniably needed, but even for the richest nations where the cornucopia of material wealth adds little to happiness and is beginning to threaten the foundations of our well-being.

The reasons for this collective blindness are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters – as it has done recently – politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.

But question it we must. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems we depend on for survival. It has failed spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.

Today we find ourselves faced with the imminent end of the era of cheap oil; the prospect (beyond the recent bubble) of steadily rising commodity prices; the degradation of forests, lakes and soils; conflicts over land use, water quality and fishing rights; and the momentous challenge of stabilizing concentrations of carbon in the global atmosphere. And we face these tasks with an economy that is fundamentally broken, in desperate need of renewal.

In these circumstances, a return to business as usual is not an option. Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilized society. Economic recovery is vital. Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential. But we also stand in urgent need of a renewed sense of shared prosperity. A commitment to fairness and flourishing in a finite world.

Delivering these goals may seem an unfamiliar or even incongruous task for policy in the modern age. The role of government has been framed so narrowly by material aims and hollowed out by a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms. The concept of governance itself stands in urgent need of renewal.

But the current economic crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in change. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades. To replace it with policy capable of addressing the enormous challenge of delivering a lasting prosperity.

For at the end of the day, prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.