This January 10th 2013 article offers a great summary of greenwashing as well as an explanation of why greenwashing occurs and rough rules of thumb to detect it.
Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.
The U.S.-based watchdog group CorpWatch defines greenwash as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.” This definition was shaped by by the group’s focus on corporate behavior and the rise of corporate green advertising at the time. However, governments, political candidates, trade associations and non-government organizations have also been accused of greenwashing.
The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Derivatives greenwashing (n). Origin from green on the pattern of whitewash.”
In 2008 the environmental group Greenpeace launched a website Stop Greenwash to “confront deceptive greenwashing campaigns, engage companies in debate, and give consumers and activists and lawmakers the information and tools they need to … hold corporations accountable for the impacts their core business decisions and investments are having on our planet.”
The allure of greenwashing
TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company, conducted a study which found that almost all of the environmental claims made for consumer products are false or misleading. Organizations are attracted to engage in greenwashing for a wide range of reasons including:
1. attempting to divert the attention of regulators and deflating pressure for regulatory change;
2. seeking to persuade critics, such as non-government organisations, that they are both well-intentioned and have changed their ways;
3. seeking to expand market share at the expense of those rivals not involved in greenwashing;
4. this is especially attractive if little or no additional expenditure is required to change performance;
5. alternatively, a company can engage in greenwashing in an attempt to narrow the perceived ‘green’ advantage of a rival;
6.. reducing staff turnover and making it easier to attract staff in the first place;
7. making the company seem attractive for potential investors, especially those interested in ethical investment or socially responsive investment.
It is worth mentioning that the Terrachoice study is possibly also a case of ‘greenwashing.’
Rough Rules of Thumb for Detecting Greenwash
Big budget greenwash campaigns are designed to defuse skepticism of journalists, politicians and activists. Some rough rules of thumb for testing whether the claims made by a company, government or NGO stack up are:
Follow the Money Trail: many companies are donors to political parties, think tanks and other groups in the community. Few companies actually disclose in their annual reports exactly whom they are donating to, even though it is shareholders money. Ask about all their donations, not just those they boast about in glossy documents such as the corporate social responsibility reports.
Follow the membership trail: Many companies boast about the virtues of their environmental policy and performance but hide their anti-environmental activism behind the banner of an industry association to which they belong. Find out what industry association companies are members of and check and see what their policies are. Assume that all individual companies support the trade associations policy positions until such time as they publicly state that they don’t agree with them or they resign. (See the article on the third party technique, a central plank in most PR campaigns).
Follow the paper trail: Most companies, or their trade associations, will make submissions to government and other inquiries on a wide range of issues. Often these submissions will be posted to a website. They will also send lots of letters to politicians and government agencies, which can be accessed by Freedom of Information Act searches. Ask about submissions made by the company and their lobbying on issues you are interested in. You will probably discover that instead of lobbying for tougher environmental standards, they are busy trying to weaken the ones that exist.
Look for skeletons in the company’s closet: Every company has major problems that it doesn’t want the public and regulators to know about. Some companies include information in the annual reports about problems that have been in the news in the last year. More often, there will have been problems, occasionally reported in the media, which they don’t want to tell shareholders about. Check for information on the company with watchdog groups and in the media and compare that with what they disclose.
Test for access to information: Many companies will make lofty claims about their commitment to transparency and providing information to ‘stakeholders’. Don’t just take them at their word. In their reports they will probably refer to environmental impact statements, reviews, audits, monitoring data and other information. If it relates to an issue you are interested in, ask to see it. And remember that ‘commercially confidential’ is just corporate speak for ‘no’.
Test for international consistency: Most companies will operate to different standards in other countries. Check and see whether their operating standards and procedures are consistent or whether they opt for lower standards where they think they can get away with it.
Check how they handle their critics: Some companies go to extraordinary lengths to try and silence their critics. This can involve everything from legal threats (see the article on SLAPPs) to funding and collaborating with police and military forces.
Test for consistency over time: It is common for a company to launch a policy or initiative and then starve it of funds. Or a company will make promises when they are under public pressure but never implement them when the spotlight fades.
Video – Greenwash Coverage from TerraChoice: The Seven Sins (CBC Newsworld)
New FTC Green Guidelines for Marketers
Profiting From the New Rules of Marketing
The 8 C’s of Sustainability
Using Trees to Generate Electricity is Not Green Energy
Earth Day Marketing Mayhem ROI
Profiting from the New Rules of Green Marketing by Jacquie Ottman
2012 Review of Forests and Trees