Greenwashing is a term that refers to a type of spin used to make companies seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Greenwashing is most often done using green PR and marketing tools, companies that engage in the practice often spending much larger amounts of money on the promotion of their so-called green initiatives than on the green initiatives themselves.
In the mid 1960s, the environmental movement started to build momentum. More and more people were becoming environmentally conscious. At the same time, the anti-nuclear movement was also gaining followers. As is the case with many new cultural trends, what companies saw in these movements was another means of gaining more capital by promoting their products accordingly. Soon enough, nuclear power was being promoted as a clean, safe alternative to other energy sources and by 1969, many public service companies were spending more than eight times what they spent on anti-pollution research on greenwashing (Karliner, 2001). That is when greenwashing was born, and since then it has been continuously evolving.
A more recent example, that we’ve probably all seen, can be found in most hotels. They give you the option of not having your towels replaced every day, in order to save water and energy. However, not washing your towels, though good for the environment, is actually just another way through which they cut their own costs. There are many other ways in which hotels could save water and energy more efficiently, but those would not help them save money, and in some cases, would augment their spending.
It is clear, then, that greenwashing can be done in a multitude of ways. In order to make it more easy to understand and to identify, Underwriters Laboratories, “a global network providing environmental services to companies around the world” (http://sinsofgreenwashing.com), came up with a set of greenwashing “sins”, which basically describes the types of greenwashing companies engage in:
“1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
- Sin of No Proof, committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
- Sin of Vagueness, committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
- Sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed when a claim, communicated either through words or images, gives the impression of a third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.
- Sin of Irrelevance, committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but which is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole.
- Sin of Fibbing, the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.”
One might wonder why it is important to tell the difference between products promoted greenwashing and products that are actually created by environmentally conscious companies. After all, it’s just another marketing tool.
Well, companies that promote themselves through greenwashing actually hurt the ones that are truly trying to help the environment, and, in consequence, hurt the environment itself. If someone is trying to support a business that minimizes its environmental impact, they could end up buying something that is actually harmful to it, simply because it is inaccurately advertised and because the actual green products are constantly being buried in a sea of irrelevance. If anyone can make these claims, the idea of a green company, any green company, becomes redundant. Furthermore, the fact that greenwashing is so publicly criticized makes people lose their trust in all green companies, including the fair ones.
That is why the University of Oregon, in partnership with EnviroMedia Social Marketing, have come up with a website that consists of an index that marks the extent to which a company uses greenwashing, named greenwashingindex.com. On it, users can add and ate companies based on the veridicity of their “green claims”.
In conclusion, greenwashing is a term that refers to an unethical marketing practice that has been going on for decades and is still evolving, in which businesses promote themselves as environmentally friendly, even though they usually aren’t, or grossly exaggerate their claims. It is important to become aware of the practice in order to protect the environment and to support those that engage in green business practices. One can do this in a multitude of ways, from not purchasing products from companies that use this spin tool to rating them and adding them on the Greenwashing Index.
Irina Lupa, Journalism Year III
Karliner, Joshua. 2010. “A Brief History of Greenwash”. http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=243
Wikipedia. “Greenwashing”. Last modified March 19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing
Greenwashing Index. “About”. http://www.greenwashingindex.com/about-greenwashing/
Sins of Greenwashing. “Index”. http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/index.html