You've probably heard of whitewashing, defined as the glossing over or covering up of scandalous information through a biased presentation of facts. But greenwashing isn't as well known. It occurs when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be "green" through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term in 1986 in a critical essay inspired by the irony of the "save the towel" movement in hotels.
Origins of greenwashing
The idea of greenwashing emerged in a period when most consumers received their news from television, radio and print media, and didn't have the luxury of fact-checking in the way we do today. In the mid-1980s, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads to broadcast its environmental dedication. But while the infamous The People Do campaign ran, Chevron was violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.
Chevron was far from the only corporation making outrageous claims. In 1991, chemical company DuPont announced its double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals prancing in chorus to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". It turned out the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. that year.
Greenwashing has changed over the last 20 years, but it's certainly still around. As the world increasingly embraces the pursuit of greener practices, corporate actors face an influx of litigation surrounding misleading environmental claims.
In February of 2017, Walmart paid $1 million to settle greenwashing claims that alleged the nation's largest retailer sold plastics that were misleadingly touted as environmentally responsible. California state law bans the sale of plastics labeled as "compostable" or "biodegradable," as environmental officials have determined such claims are misleading without disclaimers about how quickly the product will biodegrade in landfill.
Even the water industry tries to overrepresent its greenness. How many plastic bottles have you seen with colorful images of rugged mountains, pristine lakes and flourishing wildlife printed on their labels? Arrowhead promotes its Eco-Slim cap and Eco-Shape bottle while claiming, "Mother Nature is our muse."
"The core theme has stayed the same," said Philip Beere, founder of sustainability content marketing company g Communications. "The No. 1 violation is embellishing the benefit of the product or service."
Beere said he believes greenwashing is rarely caused by malicious plots to deceive, but is more frequently the result of overenthusiasm, and it's easy to see why marketers are enthusiastic. Sixty-six percent of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, according to Nielsen's Global Corporate Sustainability Report, a figure that jumps to 72 percent among millennials.
Brainwash or Greenwash?
With the belief that consumer demand for sustainability is the frontier of our transition to a greener, fairer and smarter global economy, Futerra's 2015 Selling Sustainability Report offers 10 basic rules for avoiding greenwashing.
- Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., "eco-friendly")
- Green products vs. dirty company: Efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
- Suggestive pictures: Images that indicate an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
- Irrelevant claims: Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
- Best in class: Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
- Just not credible: "Eco-friendly" cigarettes, anyone? "Greening" a dangerous product doesn't make it safe.
- Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Imaginary friends: A label that looks like a third-party endorsement … except it's made up
- No proof: It could be right, but where's the evidence?
- Outright lying: Totally fabricated claims or data
There are plenty of wonderful companies telling their environmental stories to the world, and even some who aren't that should be. The incidence of "pure greenwash," purposeful untruths or impacts of products, is not that prominent. However, there's a lot out there that gets close. Beere describes the buzzwords commonly used to greenwash as a "slippery slope" and advises any company ready to go down it to invest in educating their marketers.
"Eco-friendly," "organic," "natural" and "green" are just some examples of the widely used labels that can be confusing and misleading to consumers. If you're ready to slap some grass on your logo, be transparent with customers about your company's practices and have information readily available to back it up.
One example of transparency is activist outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. Unlike most companies, Patagonia doesn't sugarcoat its use of chemicals or the fact that it leaves a footprint. The company's sustainability mission is described as a "struggle to become a responsible company."
"We can't pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company," the website reads. "We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can tell you how we came to realize our environmental and social responsibilities, and then began to act on them."
Do your best to tell your sustainability story and avoid greenwashing. After all, we all know how costly a trip to the cleaners can be.