Don't Get Duped By "Eco-Pornography"
In a nut shell, greenwashing is a bunch of baloney from a company to make you think its bottle of water/car/chainsaw/gas/soap/hotel/etc. is more environmentally friendly than it really is.
Today, greenwashing is still rearing its ugly head. So what can you do to find the real green amongst the wannabes?
6+ Ways To Be Greenwashing Savvy
- Remember that not everything that claims to be “green” or “sustainable” actually is. Some cases are pretty obvious. Hummer insinuating that its cars are fuel efficient is downright laughable. Or in the ad above, calling Fiji water (yeah, that's right, flown all the way from Fiji just for you H2O pleausre) carbon neutral? Even if they do buy carbon offsets, it's pretty darn misleading.
Other cases are a little more subtle. To get a little bookish on you, in his book published in 1993, Carl Deal used the example of Mobil Chemical to illustrate false claims of greenwashing. In this instance, Mobil put starch in their Hefty trash bags and marketed them as biodegradable. However, the bags only biodegraded if they were left out in the sun. Since most people of course sent their trash bags to landfills, the bags never biodegraded. After being sued by six states and the Federal Trade Commission, Mobil stopped calling their bags biodegradable (in fact, a Mobil spokesman later said that it was simply a marketing tool to sell more bags). Check out other examples in the Great Greenwashed Advertising.
- Consult Greenpeace’s Greenwash Detection Kit.
- Think about TerraChoice’s 6 Sins of Greenwashing.
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: emphasizes one environmental trait while not considering the impact of the entire product; characterizes a product as much greener than it is (example: paper that is made from sustainably harvested trees)
- Sin of No Proof: products or companies that claim they do (or do not do) something but offer no evidence to support claims (example: personal care products that say they have not been tested on animals)
- Sin of Vagueness: uses unclear and unexplained marketing claims to paint a green picture (example: products that are “chemical-free” or “eco-friendly” but don’t explain how)
- Sin of Irrelevance: some companies and products make claims that are truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful (example: products that claim to be CFC-free – this is true but it is misleading because CFCs have been illegal since the 1980s)
- Sin of Fibbing: emphasizes claims that are simply false
- Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils: emphasizes claims that may be true but mainly distract the consumer from greater environmental impacts (example: organic tobacco)
- Keep an eye out for CorpWatch’s Greenwash Awards. These awards are given out bimonthly. Remember they are not an honor. No, no. They are given to those companies that “put more money, time and energy into slick PR campaigns aimed at promoting their eco-friendly images, than they do to actually protecting the environment.” [Note: Not regularly updated since 2003]
- Check out the Greenwashing Index brought to you by some foks over at the University of Oregon. The Index lets you see some current ad campaigns founded on greenwash (and let's you vote on which one is worst).
- Visit The Unsuitablog, a web site devoted to exposing environmental hypocrisy and which is updated with new examples of greenwash every few days. It also contains a short list of things to look out for in How To Spot Greenwash:
- Be suspicious of all environmental claims.
- If a company, in particular, takes out a large advertisement in a newspaper, or runs a TV advertisement saying how great their green credentials are — then they are hiding something, guaranteed. If someone is trying sell their “green” credentials then ask yourself, “why?"
- If a company has a bad history it is highly unlikely to have changed overnight. Use web sites like SourceWatch and Corporate Watch, as well as The Unsuitablog, to find out the truth behind the mask.
- Look out for poor use of scientific facts, especially when listening to politicians: “Reducing carbon emissions will protect the ozone layer”, “this technology is sustainable”, “emissions can be offset”, “the greenhouse effect is not certain” etc. All examples of rubbish that has no basis in fact, even the last one (think about it).
- Look out for buzzwords that put a gloss on reality: ”carbon intensity”, “sustainable development”, “carbon offsets”, “clean technology” etc. Another clear sign that something is being covered up.
- Use your common sense and your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t.
What is "greenwashing" exactly?
To get a little more technical, greenwashing, as defined by CorpWatch, is “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Awareness of greenwashing arose as the modern day environmental movement began during the 1960s. According to CorpWatch’s Brief History of Greenwashing, these “greened” images of corporations and products undermined public trust and was initially “labeled by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry Mander and others at the time as ‘ecopornography.’