There does seem to be a lot of greenwash
out there, and the temptation for more is
significant. But you could question…is it
really a problem?
If you’re an ‘environmentalist’ type of person advertisements
for ‘eco-friendly’ SUVs are obviously annoying, but why do we
get so much more upset about greenwash than the thousands
of advertisements that happily and legally try to sell us
A truly rational approach would surely rail against advertisements
for disposable nappies, cheap flights, water-polluting detergents and
obesity-causing fast food. There’s far more money spent
on advertising those destructive products and services
than on greenwash.
Advertising is expensive, and it’s not an exact science
- as Lord Lever the founder of Unilever purportedly
acknowledged, “half our advertising is wasted; I just
don’t know which half”. This growth in selling green
is a sign of things to come: you want to buy green,
you expect companies to be green, and they have
eagerly started to tell you that they are… occasionally
without good reason for doing so.
The full, and rather difficult to
read, version of the Oxford English
Dictionary defines greenwash as;
“Disinformation disseminated by
an organisation, etc., so as to
present an environmentally
responsible public image; a public
image of environmental
responsibility promulgated by or
for an organisation, etc., but
perceived as being unfounded or
intentionally misleading.” 8
The term greenwash only officially became part of
the English language in 1999 with that entry into the
Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s been around a lot
longer than that. In fact the first recorded use of the
term was by David Bellamy in the periodical Sanity
over twenty years ago. By Earth Day in 1990 the
concept was catching on. Most greenwash back then
didn’t include specific claims or marketing messages;
instead it was more ham-fisted images of frolicking
dolphins and lush rainforests set beside the company
logo, all to convey an impression of eco-friendliness.
These early attempts to green a company’s image
now seem laughable, especially when you think
that Bhopal, Exxon Valdez and other environmental
and social corporate disasters were still fresh in the
memory. But even these early attempts at greening
company images didn’t stay fashionable and the
1990s saw only occasional greenwash spikes. Those
were the years of specialist green products and
outlets like the Body Shop. Although greenwash
may still have been around, the audience affected
by it was small and the spending on communications
low. Only with the recent green wave, when green
consumption first dissolved its boundaries and
entered the mainstream, has greenwash raised its
During 2008 the USA are reviewing their code and
the UK is considering further guidance on theirs.
It’s likely that the Australian, French and Norwegian
codes will all encourage other countries to consider
Of course, greenwash doesn’t mean the same wherever you are.
One apocryphal story has it that a climate campaign run by a large
company across the UK, USA and China was accused
of greenwash in the first, hailed a brave in the second
and pulled because of government upset at being
implicitly criticised in the last. The next twelve months
should be interesting for those planning worldwide
green marketing campaigns.
A virtuous or vicious cycle?
So what can we expect in the coming months
and years from the greenwashers? From
our research and interviews here are a few
predictions on what we’ve got coming, both
the good and bad.
The Advertising Standards Authority covers obvious advertisements and PR, but what about the blogs, virals and wikipedias of cyber space?
One of the least pleasant forms of greenwash around is
called ‘astroturfing’, and we’re likely to see more of it.
According to said Wikipedia, ‘astroturfing’ is:
“The term is a wordplay based on ‘grassroots democracy’ efforts, which are truly spontaneous undertakings largely sustained by private persons (not politicians, governments, corporations, or public relations firms). ‘AstroTurf’ refers to the bright green artificial grass used in some sports stadiums, so ‘astroturfing’ refers to imitating or faking popular (‘grassroots’) opinion or behaviour.”
Online ‘astroturfing’ means quotes from the public, blogs
written by interested individuals, spontaneous email chains,
and yes, even Wikipedia pages that seem to be put together by
ordinary folk, but which in fact are the careful creations of PR
firms hired by greenwashers. A moment’s thought shows how
widespread this could be.
Luckily, surveys prove that we grade online information as the
least trustworthy of all types. Keep your greenwash antennae
extra sensitive online and check the sources of all pseudosounding
science or green claims.
How long until the first green ‘spam’ email? Actually, it’s
probably already happened.
The International Standards Organisation has their own green
claims code, yet a number of national governments have felt
the need to develop their own. Cultural differences, green
awareness levels and even political affiliations all affect how a
society judges greenwash.
It seems likely that greenwash will begin to raise questions at
an international level. National governments may even consider
penalising national companies who greenwash overseas.
Raising the bar
The good news is that with a growing market comes growing
competition, and we are all likely to be offered more specifically
designed green products, and much greener versions of old
favourites. If we buy them we’ll get even more.
However, this opens up a risk for business. A product that looks
‘pretty green’ in 2008 might just look like greenwash by 2009.
A greener future
If we project the current speed of growth in green
consumption in the UK then the ‘green pound’ could
be worth £53.76bn in five years and nearly £180bn by 2022.
That kind of market is going to have a real and lasting
positive impact on the planet and probably make us
all a bit happier.
The Greenwash Guide
By Jonathan Bardelline
July 18, 2008
This report (PDF) takes a look at the main issues and
players involved in greenwashing, giving an overview
of the many types of greenwashing, how it's committed
and how to avoid it.
The graphic-rich document includes real world examples
of right and wrong ways to make eco-claims. Any company
advertising the environmental benefits of their company,
products or services should be aware of the many different
environmental advertising standards as well as best practices
Source URL: http://www.greenbiz.com/resources/resource/the-greenwash-guide
MORE about Greenwashing by Joel Makower:
How Bad Is Greenwashing, Really? http://www.greenercomputing.com/column/2008/07/06/how-bad-is-greenwashing-really
The Six Sins of Greenwashing