The Greenwasher in All of Us

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by: Joel Makower

With the greening of business moving swiftly into the mainstream, there's been a renewed focus on greenwashing — "what corporations do when they try to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they really are," in the words of the watchdog group Sourcewatch.

The increased scrutiny isn't necessarily a bad thing. Companies should be held accountable for what they say and do. And there are plenty of examples where companies have attempted to apply a green sheen to their far-from-perfect environmental records. In the early 1990s, a handful of consumer-product companies were publicly spanked for their misleading green statements by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as well as a consortium of state attorneys general led by Minnesota's then-AG Hubert Humphrey III.

But the feds, and most state and local governments, have opted out of policing green claims. With good reason: There are few agreed-upon standards for being a green business. (This is not the case for green products, for which there are numerous — some would say too many — certification schemes.) True, the FTC in 1992 promulgated some Green Marketing Guidelines, which say, in effect, that if you want to call something "recyclable," it's not enough that the claim be technically true; average consumers must be able to actually recycle it in their community. But again, that's about products, not companies.

More recently, we the people have assumed the role of green police, determining who's naughty and nice from a green-marketing perspective. With the help of blogs, wikis, and good old fashioned protests and press releases, activist groups and self-styled experts are exercising their constitutional right to have a point of view on the topic — and broadcast it far and wide.

Is it a blessing or a curse? Probably a little of each. For starters, there's far from unanimity of opinion. Do BP's, or Wal-mart's, or GE's green initiatives render them benevolent leaders or malevolent greenwashers? You can find passionate opinion claiming both.

I've been seeing the "G" word showing up more and more, in both local and national media. And while it's generally good that we maintain high standards for companies' seeking to claim environmental leadership, I can't help but ponder the hypocrisy of it all: how much more we expect of companies than of ourselves.

When I speak to audiences about the greening of business — nearly every week these days, or so it seems — I often conduct an informal poll to see how audience members behave in their personal lives: how many drive hybrids or carpool to work, or are simply driving less; how many have installed solar panels or purchase green energy for their homes; how many use organic or low-toxic gardening techniques; how many seek out locally produced goods; how many have taken the basic measures at home — have installed energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, water-saving devices, insulation and weatherstripping, and the like.

Some audiences are more tentative than others in volunteering answers, but even the most enthusiastic groups tend to have only a handful of members who appear to taking more than a few token actions.

That is, few of us have gone very far out of our way to make changes that we all know are necessary to address today's environmental challenges.

This admittedly unscientific research has limited value, of course, except to raise the inevitable question: Why aren't we doing what we're asking companies to do?

I'm guessing that in the few seconds it took for you to read the preceding question you've already formulated some kind of answer: It's hard to do everything right . . . It takes too much time and costs too much . . . I want to do these things, but never seem to get around to it . . . My spouse/partner/friends don't share my interest in being environmentally responsible . . . I'm not sure which products and companies are truly the good ones . . . I have doubts that if I do these things that it'll really make a difference.

Sound even a little familiar? Does that make you malevolent? Probably not, though reasonable minds will disagree.

One need modify the above statements only slightly to make them appropriate for companies. As I've found over the past twenty years of engaging CEOs and line employees of companies both big and small, they, too, find it hard to do everything right, and though their intentions may be honorable, there always seem to be competing priorities. It may be that few of their competitors or trading partners are acting green, and being a pioneer can be lonely, not to mention set oneself up as a target for all kinds of slings and arrows. And they often wonder whether one business can really make a difference.

I'm not for a minute suggesting that companies be let off the hook. As I've said, they need to be held to high standards, especially those making green claims. But all of this begs a question that I've been asking audiences and discussing with hundreds of people over the past couple of years: What must a company do to be considered "green"? What is the minimum level of policies, programs, performance, and progress that a company must exhibit to be seen as green?

Or, more to the point: How good is "good enough"?

I don't have an answer to this question — none of us does, and that's a problem. We know what it means to be "organic," or to be a "green building." There are standards for both. But we don't know what it means to be a green business. As with beauty, green is in the eye of the beholder.

As another Earth Day approaches, and the PR machines of activist groups and corporations alike rev up to promote countless campaigns, products, announcements, and self-promotional consumer tips, we'll no doubt see more than a few stories on greenwashing — tales of companies that, despite their green-minded statements or claims, are far from perfect. (I've already been interviewed for several stories, both print and broadcast.)

As we watch and read these stories and, perhaps, proffer some inner expression of support — "Attaboy! Nail those bastards!" — it may well be worth committing a split second or two to self-reflection: "Am I really doing all that I can to address the environmental problems that concern me most?" "Do I profess one thing and do another?" "Do my friends think I'm greener than I really am?" "Am I holding others to a higher standard than myself?"

And, in the process, perhaps acknowledge that there is, indeed, a little greenwasher in all of us.

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