How Bad Is Greenwashing, Really?

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Is greenwashing really as bad a problem as some are making it out to be?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, as the G-word crops up more and more frequently in articles, blogs, reports, and conversations. Of course, the answer depends a lot on one’s view of the potential for big companies to improve their environmental performance — and talk truthfully about it — and whether the pace of corporate change is sufficient to address the magnitude of the problems we face. Like “beauty” (and “green”), “greenwash” is in the eye of the beholder.

The definition of greenwashing has changed in recent years. In the early 1990s, the term was used to describe deliberate and cynical attempts by companies to mislead the public about their environmental commitment and performance. In its seminal 1992 publication, The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash (download – PDF), the activist group described “the growth of citizen movements against environmental degradation in many countries,” which, by the late 1980s, “had gained sufficient strength and exposure to become a potential threat to the political power and financial health of TNCs” — transnational corporations.

TNCs could no longer deny their role in environmental degradation. Instead, they embraced the environment as their cause and co-opted the terminology. While little changed in practice, the greenwash counterstrategy was born. Since the birth of greenwash, industry has devised a far-reaching program to convince people that TNCs are benefactors of the global environment.

Arguably, that’s no longer the norm. Most companies are thinking seriously about their environmental impacts and risks, and what they should do about them. Most are doing something, though the majority are engaging in what I call “Random Acts of Greenness” — a few tweaks to their products, facilities, policies, or practices, but nothing that could be construed as systemic change. For the preponderance of companies, “going green” these days means a series of incremental changes that reduce, over time, their worst environmental impacts while, perhaps, garnering P.R. points.

Today, the 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” The U.S.-based watchdog group CorpWatch defines the term as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.” In other words, deceitful behavior.

Such definitions pose more questions than answers. What, exactly, is a “socially and environmentally destructive corporation”? Is that nomenclature reserved for the worst of the worst, or do most big companies qualify? Should “disinformation” — the deliberate dissemination of false information — be ascribed to a less-than-perfect company talking about its genuine efforts to improve its performance? If so, how good does that company need to be to, in effect, have permission from activists and other watchdogs to talk its walk? Should only “good guys” be allowed to have that conversation?

The answers to such questions are of more than academic interest, or should be. These days, greenwashing is applied by some to just about any environmental statement from any large company. That’s left many companies confused and conflicted, unwilling to talk about what they’re doing right, however imperfect, for fear that such communications will brand them with the G-word. As a result, many companies I’ve talked to have clammed up, keeping their green initiatives largely to themselves, enjoying the other business benefits these efforts bring — reduced costs, decreased risks, improved quality, increased employee satisfaction, etc. — but foregoing the reputational benefits.

It’s not just activists who aren’t giving companies much slack. Case in point: In April I spoke to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, a national association of business journalists. At a session on green business, reporters from some of the leading publications and news services — the Associated Press, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, Reuters, the New York Times, and dozens of others — posed questions for me and my fellow panelists. More often than not, the questions started out with some version of, “Given that 90 percent of what companies say is greenwash . . . .” If these gatekeepers of business information for the mainstream media don’t give companies much green cred, why should activists, bloggers — or anyone else?

So, the question remains: Is greenwashing really all that bad?

Truth in advertising is vital for any marketplace, including the green one. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is re-examining its standards for truth in green advertising, along with the Canadian Standards Association, which recently released new green labeling guidelines. A U.K. study issued in May found that the number of complaints about ads that made green claims in 2007 was more than four times higher than the year before. Does that mean things are four times worse than before, or that four times more people are paying attention? The study doesn’t say, though its authors acknowledge that “Most greenwash is due to ignorance and/or sloppiness rather than malicious intent.”

Meanwhile, a small army of academics and activists are on the case, pointing out eco-hypocrisies both large and small — see examples here, here, here, and here. Clearly, the audience is listening.

Put it all together and it’s not the travesty some would make it out to be. The rise of environmental marketing claims indicates that companies are engaged as never before — perhaps not sufficiently, but engaged. Companies are jumping on the green bandwagon in growing numbers, and they’re starting to tell stories about themselves and their products. That’s a good thing: storytelling is the first step toward transparency. Like all marketing, there’s a tendency to resort to hyperbole and cliché. And that needs to be policed, no less so than safety claims by toy companies or nutritional claims by food companies.

As last year’s Six Sins of Greenwashing report unveiled, there’s a lot of sloppiness out there — a great deal of unsubstantiated claims as well as those that address only part of a product’s environmental impacts, sometimes a relatively small part. But there was almost no outright deceitful behavior — fewer than 1% of all claims examined in the study were patently false.

So, is greenwashing — “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image” — on the rampage? I think not. Dubious marketing claims are problems that need addressing, but it’s part of the growing pains of a new market. The rise of green marketing claims is a testament to how quickly being seen as green has become of importance to companies. Isn’t that what all of us wanted to see happen?

Greenwashing represents the naturalizing of green as a meme. It demands scrutiny by all of us, and action against the egregious actors. But, in the end, as the saying goes, it’s all good.

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