When Is Greenwashing at Play?

by Bill Chameides | June 18th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 4 comments

Green is in. No question that is a good thing. But how can we tell true green from “greenwashing”? Some years back I was accused of aiding and abetting a greenwasher, so this is a subject I’ve thought long and hard about. My opinions on it might surprise you.

‘Greenwasher’ — In My Face

I was accused of helping a greenwasher while I was working for the Environmental Defense Fund. I’d been traveling around the country visiting with community leaders and media to discuss global warming and the need for meaningful action.

At one point, I’d invited along a colleague from a major international corporation (which shall remain nameless and please no comments about its identity) because it was way out front on climate change. It had significantly lowered its carbon footprint and advocated for mandatory, economy-wide cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. What better way of moving the climate ball forward than to show that an environmental organization and a top firm could partner on the issue? Well, it didn’t quite work out the way I’d anticipated.

When a local radio outlet invited the two of us to a talk show, we grabbed the opportunity to talk about climate change. But we got blindsided. The minute the show started, the host began the greenwashing accusations — sure, the company was lowering its carbon footprint and pushing the low-carbon economy, but it also produced toxic chemicals. And how could I, representing an environmental group, s/he asked, appear with someone from a big corporate polluter? Suffice it to say, I had to think fast about what constituted “greenwashing” and come up with a thoughtful explanation on the fly.

I’m not sure how coherent I was that day under fire in the studio, but I’ve now had more time to reflect on the issue and here are my thoughts.

Focus on Results Not Intention

First let’s look at the term. Wikipedia defines greenwashing as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” (See – cite_note-terrachoice-0)

Now, much of the greenwashing discussion focuses on true intentions. Wondering if Company X is doing such and such because it really wants to help the environment or is just trying to burnish its image to make more money is beside the point. First of all, of course the company is out to make money — that is what it’s in business for; when it stops making money, it goes out of business and there goes the green product anyway.

Plus, how can we ever know anyone’s true motivations, let alone those of a company’s board or CEO? In assessing a product’s green worthiness, we must focus on environmental benefits not on someone’s presumed reasons for selling it.

The Sticky Issue of Green Claims

Of course there is caveat emptor. Just because a product claims to be green does not mean it really is. A great example of this is corn ethanol — if that is not greenwashing, I don’t know what is.

The point here is to focus on the product’s environmental benefits or lack thereof.

A far more difficult call is when a company claims to be green and touts all the great things it does for the environment. Here more subjectivity comes into play, and I think there’s room for honest disagreement.

Take the oil company that does everything it can to discount climate change science, blocks any meaningful action to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and furthers policies that allow greater exploitation of fossil fuels. But on TV it pushes its green creds through ads citing its development of renewable energy technologies. It’s great that the company is developing renewables, but when it comes to issues of energy and climate change, in my book the company gets an “F.” Its overall impact on climate is clearly not good.

Again: Focus on Impact

On the other hand, consider the leading manufacturer of hybrid cars. A great thing, sure, but the auto maker also markets SUVs, and while average fuel economy for its fleet is high, it is not the best in all classes. Perhaps worst of all, it has opposed California’s historic legislation to lower global warming pollution from cars.

So does the company get green credits? On balance, yes. It’s clearly pushing the envelope on fuel efficiency and proving that there’s a market. But it’s a qualified credit. We need to caveat the praise by noting not all of its actions are environmentally enlightened.

Now what about the company whose representative accompanied me on my climate tour? Was I aiding and abetting a greenwasher? I think not. In the case of climate change, which was the issue at hand, the company was clearly a leader. Its actions demonstrated it could reduce heat-trapping pollution while remaining a top competitor. Its impact on climate change, which had prompted our partnership, was clearly positive.

However, I agree that we should not allow its position on climate change to excuse its other actions. In other forums where toxic pollution might be the relevant issue, I would and do criticize its practices and favor actions and appropriate regulations that would curtail that pollution. But we must give credit where credit is due.

I’ll leave off with one last example. President Bush has been a disaster for the environment in so many ways. (He’s on the TV as I write this, arguing that we need to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — ANWR — to oil exploration and exploitation.) But he has done one very positive thing. He set aside the North West Hawaiian Islands as a national monument, creating the largest marine reserve in the world. Did he do that because he really cares about the ocean or because he wants to salvage his legacy? Is he guilty of greenwashing? I don’t really care. I am glad for the marine reserve. Environmentalists should give him credit for doing that, regardless of they think about his other actions.

filed under: business, climate change, energy, faculty, oil
and: , , , , , , , , , ,


All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. lisajw
    Jun 19, 2008

    Please develop in depth this green washing theme over time. Perhaps a Nicholas student or two could think about getting a Green Consumer Report going, if Consumer Report has not already, or partner with other organizations on a thesis-project, even other universities, grad schools or EDF-like entities, to create a “Green Light” website that ranks the Fortune 100 or 500 in various categories of environmental stewardship, e.g., air, water, soil, product, packaging, carbon footprint, manufacturing processes, natural resource regeneration, etc. Why should companies be allowed to manufacture products that cannot biodegrade, if an alternative biodegradable product is possible? Those who pollute the least should be known to the consuming public as should those who pollute the most. I wonder how SC Johnson would rank overall? It’s got that methane gas production plant commercial airing now, which is great. Such commercials make me wonder what it is doing overall for/against the environment, and in countries outside of America where it has operations. Companies who fake green should be flagged to the consuming public as well. Aside from ranking the “big guys,” a “Green Light” website could also list entrepreneurs whose products may be on the market, but little-known or regional alternatives to such environmental ravages as corn ethanol? By the way, doesn’t the corn ethanol lobby support Obama? He’ll be another leader to watch closely, if elected, specifically because of this PAC-backing. > Your blog flags the tip of an iceburg. Yes, let’s give credit where credit is due. The time has come, however, to push the envelope and create a master “report,” Wikipedia-style, to counter the power of advertising (falsely) and/or telling only a partial environmental stewardship story. Such a widely accessible and viable information entity would allow more informed activism in pushing for better government regs to ensure the planet’s (and our) health.” title=”Greenwashing

    • Erica Rowell
      Jun 19, 2008

      Bill C. and Erica R. respond — Lisa, Thanks for your comment. Not a bad suggestion — maybe one of our students or readers will pick up on it and get creative. … For now, though, a number of organizations out there already have some version of a green report card as a quick search on the Web shows. Here are three examples of some sites that might be a reasonable place to start. However, by including them here, we are by no means endorsing them — you’ll need to investigate to make sure they meet your standards. I suppose that’s the trouble with the information age — we have so much at our fingertips, but only deep investigation allows us to separate the good info from the misinformation. – Consumer Report’s green site – site maintained by the National Geographic Society – a site funded by Stonyfield Farm Keep the comments coming!” title=”green guides on the web

  2. Madeleine
    Jun 18, 2008

    As you said, a real concern with greenwashing is that a company may be only taking a few steps towards becoming environmentally friendly within minimial environmental benefits. I think this is an information asymmetry–do we trust the producer (who unquestionably is concerned with profit and competition) to tell us how green they are or do we feel safer with third party verification? ” title=”greenwashing

    • Erica Rowell
      Jun 18, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides responds – Madeleine: I agree — independent, third-party verification is definitely preferable. Unfortunately, not always available so we have to do our homework. That is what I meant by caveat emptor, buyer beware. It’s up to us to do the research to make sure green claims translate into green benefits. ” title=”caveat emptor

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff