How Bad Is Greenwashing, Really?

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

That’s the question that Joel Makower attempts to answer in his latest blog post.  He cites the efforts that businesses are making to green and that activists and bloggers are making to keep the corporations in line as evidence that a lot of the noise is just a part of "the growing pains of a new market."

Posted July 6, 2008
By Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

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.

Joel Makower is the Executive Editor of, and blogs at Two Steps Forward.

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