Greenwashing – A Byproduct of Sustainability


A reality in the world of sustainability, greenwashing is used to promote products or actions as environmentally conscious. It can be considered greenwashing if an organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” than actually implementing practices that minimize environmental impact. The main objective is to manipulate consumer opinion and/or increase profits. Greenwashing is prevalent through all types of industries and is mainly seen in energy, as that industry is most susceptible to environmental accidents. It is common for organizations to use greenwashing to rebrand themselves, either attempting to target a new demographic or to recover from a PR incident.  A form of spin in the PR world, greenwashing has had a significant increase in the past decade and is an unintended consequence of an otherwise ethical movement.

According to Wikipedia, New York environmentalist, Jay Westerveld coined the word greenwashing. In his 1986 essay about hotel industry practices, he researched the practice of placing “Save the Environment” hotel placards in each room, which promoted the reuse of towels and sheets. In his findings, Westerveld noted that little or no effort was made into reducing waste or energy and that the actual objective was savings in operating costs.

Greenwashing has manifested itself through all types of industries, however a good example is an oil and gas company running a marketing campaign touting new “green” energy – while in reality that “green” energy only represents a small portion of the total revenue. This can be seen in 2009 right before the COP Copenhagen, when Shell ran a sponsored research project and advertising campaign in the Economist magazine, titled Countdown to Copenhagen. It contained ads about Shell developing new low carbon technologies, carbon capture and biofuels with the intention of “helping customers save energy.” In the ad campaign, it depicted pictures of wind turbines, a butterfly net catching CO2 and a pocket calculator with a button marked “less CO2.” Soon thereafter, environmental groups criticized the new campaign for violating advertising standards and misleading consumers.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission provides voluntary guidelines for environmental marketing claims. These guidelines give the FTC the right to prosecute false and misleading advertising claims. It is important to note, that greenwashing claims are subject to jurisdiction and that a greenwashing case by the Nuclear Energy Institute claiming to be environmentally clean was thrown out due to jurisdiction.

So how can you differentiate greenwashing and meaningful environmental initiatives? Here are some tips according to Sourcewatch:

  1. Use your Intuition – Simple and effective. Just because it has an “official seal of approval” or uses the color green does not merit legitimate environmental claims.
  2. Test Access to Information – A quick Google search of the company, the products should come up with accurate information. Using technology, we can access this information on our smart phones, even using dedicated iPhone apps that allow you to scan the bar codes of products. (Check out Good Guide)
  3. Look for Consistency – How long has an organization been integrating an environmental program?  Have there been recent events prompting environmental programs? Do they write an annual CSR, GRI or CDP report?
  4. Follow the Membership Trail – Are they apart of any industry associations? Many companies boast about their environmental programs but hide anti-environmentalism behind an industry association. In some cases, organizations will hire journalists or writers to write favorably for them, known in PR as third party technique.
  5. Follow the Money – Do they disclose political, lobbying or think tank contributions? This one is a more tricky as sometimes companies do not disclose this information, however the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has a databases specializing on campaign finance and political contributions.

We are witness to the free market with consumers proving that buying power has major influence. Unafraid to put their money where their mouth is, consumers engage with companies  like never before. Companies have caught on using social media to understand their customers.  Because of this, there have been sincere changes to adapt, while others have disguised themselves in these attempts. Advertising in its nature is inherently attractive and for the most part deceiving. What kind of consumer would we be if we believed everything we read or saw? If you should take away anything from this, it is that research and due diligence are a must for any conscious consumer. Begin to question everything about the product, the company, the process of making the product, the supply chain, the materials sourced, etc.  Doing so will make you a conscious consumer and help you to distinguish the difference between greenwashing and genuine corporate social responsibility.

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