greenwashing by robert carter

Greenwashing (a compound word modelled on ‘whitewash’), or ‘green sheen,’ is a form of spin in which ‘green’ PR or ‘green’ marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly. The term was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay regarding the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each room promoting reuse of towels ostensibly to ‘save the environment.’

Westerveld noted that, in most cases, little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was being made by these institutions — as evidenced by the lack of cost reduction this practice effected. Westerveld opined that the actual objective of this ‘green campaign’ on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, increased profit. Westerveld thus labeled this and other outwardly environmentally conscientious acts with a greater, underlying purpose of profit increase as greenwashing.

The term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices. This is often portrayed by changing the name or label of a product to evoke the natural environment or nature—for example, putting an image of a forest on a bottle containing harmful chemicals. Environmentalists often use greenwashing to describe the actions of energy companies, which are traditionally the largest polluters. Norway’s consumer ombudsman has targeted automakers who claim that their cars are ‘green,’ ‘clean’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ with some of the world’s strictest advertising guidelines.

In addition, the political term ‘linguistic detoxification’ describes when, through legislation or other government action, the definitions of toxicity for certain substances are changed, or the name of the substance is changed, so that fewer things fall under a particular classification as toxic. An example is the reclassification of some low-level radioactive waste as ‘beyond regulatory concern,’ which permits it to be buried in conventional landfills. Another example is the EPA renaming sewage sludge to ‘biosolids,’ and allowing it to be used as fertilizer, despite the fact that it often contains many hazardous materials including PCBs, dioxin, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and asbestos. The origin of this phrase has been attributed to environmental activist and author Barry Commoner.

Several activities designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be considered merely symbolic greenwash. For example, Earth Hour encourages consumers to switch off electric appliances for 1 hour. This may make people feel good about a minor inconvenience without creating any sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, corporate and government Carbon Emission Trading, is considered a pro-environmentalism,  but may be counterproductive if the cost of carbon is priced too low, or if large emitters are given ‘free credits.’ For example, Bank of America subsidiary MBNA offers an Eco-Logique MasterCard for Canadian consumers that rewards customers with carbon offsets as they continue using the card. Customers may feel that they are nullifying their carbon footprint by purchasing polluting goods with the card. However, only 0.5 percent of purchase price goes into purchasing carbon offsets, while the rest of the interchange fee still goes to the bank.

In the mid 1960’s, the environmental movement gained momentum. This popularity prompted many companies to create a new green image through advertising. Jerry Mander, a former Madison advertising executive, called this new form of advertising ‘ecopornography.’ Due to public interest in the environment, the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. This encouraged many industries to advertise themselves as being friendly to the environment. Public utilities spent 300 million dollars advertising themselves as clean green companies. This was eight times more than the money they spent on pollution reduction research.

In the 1980s Chevron Corporation, a large oil company, launched one of the most famous greenwashing ad campaigns in history. Chevron’s ‘People Do’ advertisements were aimed at a ‘hostile audience’ of ‘societally conscious’ people. Two years after the launch of the campaign, surveys found people in California trusted Chevron more than other oil companies to protect the environment. In the late 1980s The American Chemistry Council started a program called Responsible Care, which shone light on the environmental performances and precautions of the group’s members. The loose guidelines of responsible care caused industries to adopt self regulation over government regulation.

In 1998 the Federal Trade Commission created the ‘Green Guidelines,’ which defined terms used in environmental marketing. The following year the FTC found that the Nuclear Energy Institute claims of being environmentally clean were not true. The FTC did nothing about the ads because they were out of their jurisdiction. This caused the FTC to realize they needed new clear enforceable standards. BP, the world’s second largest oil company, entered the greenwashing playing field, spending 200 million dollars on rebranding their company. Part of their rebranding was use of the slogan ‘beyond petroleum’ and a new green and yellow sunburst design for their logo.


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