Towards A More Sophisticated Definition of Greenwash

As popular discourse would have it, "greenwash" is the Cain to sustainability’s Abel – an evil corporate force defeating the virtuous ideals of well-meaning environmentalists through the use of slick ad campaigns and vacuous pr.

Different sources offer a range of working definitions of greenwash, each evoking varying degrees of implied morality. For terrachoice (publishers of the oft-cited “Six Sins of Greenwashing”), Greenwash is “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” Jay Westerveld, an environmentalist who is credited with coining the term greenwash, used it to refer to a corporate practice of spending more money on environmental branding or pr than on environmentally conscientious actions. SourceWatch calls it the “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue.”

To offer an iconic example, enter Shell Oil and their National Geographic ad campaign touting the company’s support of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Actual funding directed towards the sanctuary: $5,000 per year. Cost of financing the add campaign: undisclosed 6-figure amount, renewed annually. Relative success in re-branding the oil magnate as a corporation motivated to save the earth from environmental destruction: apparently, priceless.

While this sort of paradoxical (but apparently effective) pr-move certainly constitutes corporate greenwash, Kenny Bruno and Joshua Karliner, authors of The Corporate Takeover of Sustainable Development, warn that image-based advertisements are only one of several now-prevalent greenwashing mechanisms. In an attempt to educate consumers, they describe the following five common forms of greenwash:

1. Seduce you with Image Ads

Example: gas-guzzling SUV in the foreground, gorgeous luscious rainforest in the background.

Intent: viewer will subconsciously associate gas-guzzling SUV’s with natural beauty.

2. Impress you with Tangential Projects

Example: see Shell campaign described above.

3. Distract You from Destructive Products

Example: BP Solar.

Intent: viewer will associate BP with warm and fuzzy solar panels instead of oil spills.

4. Gain Your Sympathy by Adopting Environmental Lingo

Example: BP (formerly known as “British Petroleum”) redefined as “Beyond Petroleum,” presumably following linguistic suit to the Rainforest Action Network’s “Beyond Oil” campaign.

Intent: viewer will assume that BP is investing in renewable energy (as opposed to…say…natural gas.)

5. Avoid Regulations Claiming They will Solve the Problem Themselves

This more subtle form of greenwashing might prove to be the most effective and consequently, pervasive. However, it’s also the most difficult to recognize; clearly, not all forms of self-regulation are deceptive or fraudulent.

Bruno and Karliner hope that promoting a more sophisticated understanding of greenwashing tactics will help to dispel the power of fraudulent corporate claims.

Ideally, it can also help to encourage a more nuanced interpretation of the pervasive (and growing) phenomena that is Sustainability. While it may be easier to siphon claims to “greenness” into opposing black and white categories of good and evil (i.e. “true sustainability” vs. greenwashing) the reality is that most instances of “greenness” are decidedly more grey.

And even if you are able to identify those few greenwashing cases at the extreme “black” end of the spectrum, remember these wise words from Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.”