When Is Greenwashing at Play?
by Bill Chameides | June 18th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
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 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwash – 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: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, automakers, California, carbon footprint, cars, consumers, corn ethanol, corporations, George W. Bush, greenwashing, oil company