Greenwashing

What is it, and why should you care?


By Molly Dickinson

It sounds like something out of a science fiction flick (à la “Avatar,” perhaps), or maybe an environmentally friendlier way to clean your dirty laundry. In fact, “greenwashing” is much more deceptive than it sounds. 


Save a Towel, Save the Planet

It’s inspired by the idea of “whitewashing”—adding a bright white “wash” of paint to a surface to conceal flaws, giving the impression that the whitened area is newer and cleaner than it actually is. Jay Westervelt, a prominent biologist and environmental advocate, coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986 in an essay critiquing the hotel industry’s practice of placing signs in guest bathrooms touting the environmental friendliness of the hotel’s towel-washing policies. Use your towel more than once, 

the placards promised, and you’ll be helping this hotel preserve our precious water resources. It sounds good; logical, even. But that’s the point. In reality, Westervelt pointed out, the hotels were doing little—if anything—to develop and practice sound environmentally friendly practices. And all that water they claimed to be saving? A drop in the bucket, if that. 

What the practice did do, however, and what Westervelt argued was its true purpose, was to cash in on the consumer public’s growing interest in the environmental movement. Guests began to equate supporting the environment with supporting that particular hotel and, consequently, increased their positive opinion of and loyalty to the brand. This was greenwashing at work. Westervelt’s clever term caught on, and as the environmental movement expanded and more and more businesses gave the green light on marketing designed to sway eco-conscious consumers, the term gained social and cultural credence. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, where it was defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”  


Green Business is Big Business

Despite Westervelt’s warning—or possibly, partly because of it—the practice of greenwashing seems to have only gained steam over the past quarter century. A massive segment of the modern consumer population—more than 60 percent globally, according to the 2011 Green Brands study, which surveyed more than 9,000 people in eight countries—say they want to buy from environmentally responsible companies. With demand sky high, companies in all sectors of the market are grasping for a piece of that big, green pie. And many aren’t being entirely honest about it. 

“All Natural!,” “Earth-safe!,” “Made from plants!”—green-seeming products practically scream at consumers from shelves high and low. From premium-priced, eco-chic boutiques to gas station convenience stores; from brand-new brands to labels our great grandparents used to reach for; even from the archetypal arch-villains of the environmental movement—big oil,  power plants, logging companies—we hear the same refrain: “Be green, buy this!”

Of course, there are thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of companies worldwide that do—honestly—help to make the world a little greener. But how to divide the organic, non-GMO, locally grown wheat from the chaff? 


Behind the Emerald Curtain

That, says Life University Sustainability Coordinator and green blogger Shannan George, is the challenge. “Companies are always going to market their products, and they are not always going to do it in a way that is 100 percent factual or even especially helpful to the consumer.” They can even be downright misleading. So, she says, it is up to individual buyers to educate themselves and to make the best decisions they can with the information they have. 

In her down-to-earth blog “A Sustainable LIFE” (lifeusustainability.wordpress.com), George addresses many of the challenges of greener living, including those presented by greenwashing (a 2010 post discussed ice cream icon Ben & Jerry’s decision to remove the words “all natural” from some flavors’ labels, following complaints from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that the products contained engineered ingredients like alkalized cocoa, corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil). She admits that making such decisions is not always easy, especially given the increasingly complex and shifting nuances of the environmental movement. Consumers wishing to “go green” today must not only consider whether or not a product supports the burning of fossil fuels or the razing of rainforests, but also whether buying a USDA-certified organic orange shipped from the other side of the country is more or less “green” than buying a non-organic orange from the grove just up the road. “It takes effort,” she admits. “But it’s a worthy effort. It’s an effort that ultimately can make a positive difference not only in your life and your family’s life, but even in influencing the larger market and sending a message to companies that good green advertising isn’t necessarily good green business.”

Fortunately, while there may be a glut of greenwashed goods out there, there is also no shortage of information available to the concerned consumer—one just has to know where to look.


Green Screen

The best informational tool for any connected consumer is also the fastest, easiest and most accessible, and it’s only getting more so. Enter the Internet. Although locating the sites and services that become “go-tos” for trustworthy, at-your-fingertips eco-shopping advice is largely a matter of personal research and personal preference, there are a few sites that are currently at the head of the pack.

GoodGuide (GoodGuide.com) is a “for benefit” organization and a certified B Corporation, which means it meets third-party standards for doing business in a way that is socially, ethically and environmentally responsible. The Guide, which is available online and via a mobile app for iPhone and Android devices—the latter is especially handy when making green shopping decisions where they most often occur, in the store itself—employs a scientific rating system that ranks products according to their respective impacts on “Health,” “Environment” and “Society.”  More than 150,000 consumer products are ranked, searchable and organized by category. Users can even register with the site and select which of the above values are most important to them, which allows for a more customized guide experience. Also useful (but mostly just really cool): the app allows you to access product information by snapping a picture of a barcode using the camera in your mobile phone. 

The green buying guide compiled by Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports) is available online at GreenerChoices.org. Although not as technically savvy or flashy as the GoodGuide, it offers product ratings, informational articles and other content geared to the eco-conscious consumer, from one of the world’s most trusted consumer advocate organizations. 

When it comes to educating the public on the concept and practice of greenwashing itself, one of the most noteworthy resources comes, perhaps ironically, from an environmental marketing firm. TerraChoice’s stated mission is to help “genuine environmental leaders” grow their businesses and the larger sustainability movement through marketing that emphasizes their eco-friendly practices. As part of this service, and their overall commitment to the environment, TerraChoice has created an educational and promotional campaign around a series of studies they author on “The Sins of Greenwashing.” In addition to the published reports themselves, consumers can visit SinsOfGreenwashing.org to review visual representations of the studies’ most significant findings, play with nifty media, including games (“Name that Sin!”), e-cards, website badges, downloadable posters and wallet cards, and familiarize themselves with the catchy—and constructive—Seven Sins of Greenwashing. These include “The Sin of Vagueness” (the notorious “all natural” claim fits here), “The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off” (for example, a cleaning product that claims to be green because its packaging uses post-consumer recycled plastic, but that still contains chemicals whose manufacturing proves harmful to the environment) and “The Sin of Worshipping False Labels,” which addresses a more recent trend in which products display seals, logos or other types of labeling that imply third-party endorsement from an organization that is not approved to provide that endorsement (or which doesn’t even exist).

Researching your purchases using authenticated resources (all, especially Internet-based sources, should be as carefully vetted as the products you intend to purchase with their guidance) is the best way to defeat the greenwashing machine. Learn how to spot a fake, using the Seven Sins or other documented red flags, and curate a list of companies and brands you can trust. Another good practice to make a habit of is buying local. When you shop close to home from small businesses, you have greater access to the company owners and representatives—to whom you can direct your questions—and a better chance of observing, in person, how they do business. If you do decide to buy, you’ll likely be cutting down on the amount of fossil fuels used to transport the goods to you, and your dollars will be recycled back into your local economy.

Finally, follow your instincts. If a product contains a litany of ingredients you can’t pronounce, lists artificial colors, dyes and preservatives, is over-packaged, shipped from a faraway land or just doesn’t give you that good green feeling, leave it on the shelf. A better, greener choice is out there, you just have to look for it.