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Greenwashing: The Corporate Exaggeration of Environmental Consciousness

“Green is the new black,” proclaims Greenpeace International. “Corporations are falling all over themselves to demonstrate to current and potential customers that they are not only ecologically conscious, but also environmentally correct.”

These newfound corporate environmental consciences are part of a phenomenon known as “greenwashing.” The term originated from a 1986 essay by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt which examined the hospitality industry’s practice of asking guests to reuse their towels in order to “save the environment.”

Environmental lawyers Devika Kewalramani and Richard J. Sobelsohn of Forbes Magazine attribute the origins of greenwashing to an amalgamation of the “concepts of ‘green’ (to be environmentally sound), and ‘whitewashing’ (to gloss over wrongdoing) to describe the deceptive use of green marketing which promotes a misleading perception that a company’s policies, practices, products or services are environmentally friendly.”

What Greenpeace calls “the cynical use of environmental theme to whitewash corporate misbehavior” first occurred long before Westervelt’s label came about. However, as the media and the public’s environmental awareness have grown, the sophistication of corporate public relation strategies has been forced to intensify in order to keep up.

“‘Eco-friendly,’ ‘organic,’‘‘natural,’ and ‘green,’” elaborate Kewalramani and Sobelsohn of Forbes, “are just some everyday examples of widely used labels that can be confusing, even misleading.” Such misrepresentations are increasing in scope and scale as organizations successfully portray themselves as environmental stewards because consumers have little information regarding corporate operations and practices.

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There are of course some businesses who are genuine in their commitments to eco-friendly practices and policies. Nevertheless, too many others seem to be facetiously treating “environmentalism” like it is a tagline as opposed to a corporate commitment.

“Buy our products,” mocks Greenpeace, “and you will end global warming, improve air quality, and save the oceans.” At best, statements such as these stretch the truth, and at worst, they obscure environmentally harmful corporate behaviors.

Indoctrinating the consumer

According to Dr. Tiffany Gallicano of the University of Oregon, “as more companies have adopted green marketing campaigns, consumers are growing increasingly confused over what it means to be ‘green’.”

This makes it progressively more difficult for the consumer to differentiate between those companies authentically committed to greener practices and those using a green curtain to conceal more environmentally degrading motives.

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As the commerce review Brandweek notes, even those corporations that are genuinely concerned with environmentally friendly practices are motivated first and foremost by revenue; “it’s unlikely they’d be pursuing this angle if there weren’t profit to be had.”

Moreover, according to The Guardian’s environmental correspondent Lucy Aitken, “the companies that are making the biggest strides internally tend to be the most bashful in their communications, while those that are most vocal have the least to say.” Thus, it seems that the fervency of a corporation’s environmentalist claims and the truthfulness of those claims are inversely correlated.

When corporations do manage to voluntarily improve their green practices, they often use multi-million dollar publicity campaigns to advertise minor improvements as major achievements. Furthermore, as Greenpeace highlights, some disingenuous companies, “when forced by legislation or a court decision to improve their environmental track record, promote the resulting changes as if they had taken the step voluntarily.”

“The rhetoric has to match the reality of what a company is doing to address sustainability issues, as opposed to tinkering around the edges, or communicating a red herring,” World Wildlife Fund head of industry relations Dax Lovegrove told Aitken.

Some corporately greenwashed red herrings have spurred recent lawsuits. But Forbes believes these are only the beginning, “as more businesses jump on the green bandwagon, and rising public intolerance for false green claims is experienced, it is only a matter of time before there is a groundswell in court actions or other proceedings.”

The scope and spread of greenwashing

John Grant, co-founder of renowned UK advertising agency St. Lukes, writes in his The Green Marketing Manifesto, “you can’t put a lettuce in the window of a butcher’s shop and declare that you are now ‘turning vegetarian’.”

Unfortunately, according to Guy Pearse, author of Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams, this is what many corporations are attempting to do: “Toyota reckons Mother Nature drives a Prius, Ford wants us to ‘Join the Green Revolution’, and McDonald’s has painted its famous golden arches green. Facebook has even ‘friended’ Greenpeace.”

The scale of this green branding swindle is colossal. In selling products to consumers who want to cut their carbon footprints, lots of companies advertise their offerings as emission-free cornerstones of an increasingly popular “save the planet” lifestyle.

An example of the greenwasher par excellence is energy multinational British Petroleum (BP). In 2000, BP won a Gold Medal from the American Marketing Association for adopting the tagline “beyond petroleum” and a Helios sunburst logo, pledging $8 billion to alternative energy, and promising to cut emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010.

Unbeknownst at the time, these promises did not discuss the practical consequences of the company’s 50,000 natural gas rigs and oil wells. Moreover, BP’s latest figures indicate it produces 4 million barrels of oil daily, 24% more than when its “beyond petroleum” campaign started, adding about 1.7 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere daily.

BP claims its efficiency measures saved 7.9 million tonnes of CO2 between 2002 and 2010, meaning emissions savings that took eight years to accumulate and promote are erased by BP’s normal production every five days. Moreover, every 30 hours, BP wipes out all customer emissions savings made via offset programs over the last decade.

Besides BP and other titans of the energy sector such as Shell, Vale, Chevron, and Sasol, many other corporations engage greenwashing practices that are becoming increasingly recognized by the critical consumer.

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a corporation that done business with large conglomerates such as Mattel, Yum! (parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell), and Wal-Mart, has gone to extreme lengths to greenwash the deforestation of over 2 million hectares of Indonesian forests which are home to the endangered Sumatran tiger.

The agricultural giant and world’s largest producer of genetically modified (GM) seeds Monsanto, greenwashes with their tagline of “producing more, conserving more,” while in actuality, a 13-year independent US study determined that GM maize and soybeans produce yields no greater, and in many cases much lower, than conventional crops.

Banking multinational HSBC claims to be “respecting environmental limits and investing in communities.” However, Ethical Consumer ranks HSBC as one of the least ethical banks on the planet due to its score of 2.5 out of 20 for continued investment in coal mining, tar sands extraction, off-shore gas and oil drilling, and unsustainable logging.

Fighting back against misinformation

The good news is that consumers are taking the first step in combating industrial greenwashing practices worldwide by becoming more critical of industry rhetoric. “Things are changing,” said Greenpeace Canada’s forest campaign coordinator and one of Canada’s 2013 Clean 50 honorees Richard Brooks, “people are getting a lot smarter.”

“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of corporate social responsibility and are expecting more information and disclosure from companies,” said Dr. Gallicano. “The information technology age has had a profound impact on the flow of information. The control of information resides with individuals rather than companies.”

According to Greenpeace International, the Internet is an increasingly valuable medium through which consumers can take action against industrial greenwashing practices. Activist or not, consumers can contact corporations and policymakers to voice concerns or draw attention to misleading claims via blogs, websites, and other socio-digital forms of outreach.

A recent example of successful action against greenwashers was Greenpeace’s Kleercut boycott of world-leading tissue-product manufacturer, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

In 2009, after 5 years of campaigning against the company’s “green” claims, Greenpeace convinced Kimberly-Clark to stop buying pulp from endangered Canadian boreal forests, and instead ensure that 100 per cent of its purchases came from responsible sources.

According to Brooks, the Kleercut campaign showed that individuals in the marketplace do have significant influence over corporate behavior.

However, since Terrachoice, North America’s premier environmental marketing firm, found that 98% of 2,219 products surveyed in the United States and Canada are guilty of greenwashing practices, it seems that the environmentally-minded consumer must remain ever-vigilant in order to see through continued corporate embellishment.

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