In the marketing world perception is more important than reality, and corporate executives have realized there is a ton of money to be made from consumers who care about sustainability.
This insight led to the rise of greenwashing, the practice of deceiving people into believing a damaging company is actually ethical and positively impacting the environment.
The most widely-cited and official definitions of greenwashing come from CorpWatch, an organization that holds corporations accountable and has been fighting against greenwashing for more than two decades. Here are their thoughts on greenwashing:
“green*wash: (n) 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. The Tenth Edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary
green*wash: (gr~en-wosh) -washers, -washing, -washed 1.) The phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty. 2) Environmental whitewash. 3) Any attempt to brainwash consumers or policy makers into believing polluting mega-corporations are the key to environmentally sound sustainable development”
A Brief History of Greenwashing
It’s not clear exactly when brands began greenwashing. Nonetheless, the trend has been prevalent since the rise of nuclear power in the 1960s.
Environmentalists cite Chevron’s “People Do” series of commercials as the epitome of greenwashing. It doesn’t get much worse than an oil company destroying the earth and then pretending to be stewards of nature.
The actual term, however, was not coined until the 80s. Environmentalist Jay Westerveld, a student at the time, was borrowing towels at a popular beach resort that claimed to be environmentally conscious and urged guests to conserve their towels. He noticed, however, that the resort was expanding in a way that was not sustainable.
Years later Westerveld wrote an essay that contained an early version of the “greenwashing” language. A literary magazine picked up the essay, and the term became popular around 1986. Since then greenwashing has become more prevalent, Westerveld said in an interview with AOL.
Types of Greenwashing
Under the umbrella of greenwashing there are specific strategies marketers have developed to manipulate the perception of their business, products and policies. You’ve most likely seen these tactics in ads, interviews, op-eds and sponsored articles.
Framing Companies or Products as Sustainable When They Aren’t
Marketers at unethical businesses count on consumers to be uneducated or too lazy to conduct some quick research. The objective is to present a claim or implication people will take at face value.
Chevron’s “People Do” campaign embodied this tactic. Executives prayed that some pretty videos from nature would be enough to deceive the public into believing a petroleum giant could be eco-friendly.
Emphasizing Something Required by Law As If It Was Proactive or Additional
When new legislation forces a company to make their practices more sustainable, their marketing team will often advertise the change as if the motivation was consideration for the environment. Take the issue of lead-based paint.
In 1978 the federal government banned the use of lead in paint, and some states had prohibited it even earlier. Afterward several companies announced they had removed lead from their paint because of concerns for their customers’ safety. “Lead-free” labels began to appear on paint cans, as if lead was still a legal option. Even today “lead-free paint” is a common term.
Highlighting a Green Project to Divert Attention from Negative Impacts
We should give credit where credit is due, even to unethical organization. Nonetheless, launching a genuinely green project does not absolve a company of past damage to the environment.
Currently Tide is investing in reusable packaging. It’s a great initiative that should be acknowledged and praised. The campaign does not, however, change the fact that Tide products have included ingredients that are environmentally harmful and hazardous to human health.
Green Visual Branding and Imagery, Despite Company Damaging the Environment
There’s no law against printing flowers and animals on toxic products. A company could dump toxic waste into national parks every day and still call itself “Green Co.” or something like that.
All of this imagery and language is designed to lull consumers into a false sense of security. Some shoppers simply pick the green-looking product from an aisle, without looking at the ingredients or researching the brand.
Environmentalist Barry Commoner coined the phrase, “linguistic detoxification,” to refer to how organizations invent neutral or even green-sounding versions of unpleasant terms or names. “Sewage sludge,” for example, can be “biosolids.”
Comparisons to Organizations That Are Even Worse
Everything is relative, including our feelings about corporations and products. When companies compare themselves to the worst in their industry, they can come off smelling like roses.
How to Avoid Greenwashed Brands and Products
Corporate executives may be smart, but there is only so much they can do to trick you into thinking a product is sustainable. Here are a few ways to see through the marketing and decide which brands and products align with your values:
Check the Ingredients
No amount of clean branding can hide dirty ingredients. Businesses are required by law to list most of their active ingredients online or on the backs of their products.
To learn which chemicals could be bad news, check out our lists on the subject.
Read News Pieces on the Brand or Product
If you Google a brand or product, there should be at least a few reviews and reports from unbiased publications. An unethical brand will have plenty of negative news pieces associated with their name.
See What Watchdog Organizations Have to Say
In addition to CorpWatch, there are a few other organizations with a strong record of calling people out for greenwashing:
Please let us know if we are missing an organization that deserves a shoutout!
It All Comes Out in the Greenwash
In this time of unprecedented information access and callout culture, there’s only so long toxic companies can pretend to be green. If you spot an instance of greenwashing and realize no one else is talking about it, share your thoughts. Like Westerveld, your commentary could be the first domino in an effect that leads to real change.
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