Green or greenwash?

I learned a new word recently. I was reading a weekly intracompany letter, or at least skimming through it to see if there was anything interesting. My work in IT, reviewing software change documentation for compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, is so far removed from both our products and our customers that discussions of marketing campaigns, customer satisfaction surveys, and quality or safety initiatives are so remote from my daily work that it’s hard to get really interested.

But somewhere in the middle of the letter, I noticed the word “greenwash.” It was mentioned as something we don’t want our company to do. It went on to talk about a genuine commitment to doing what is good for the environment. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wanted to find out where this word “greenwash” came from.

I thought I did a decent job of keeping up with major events and issues, so I was surprised to learn that Jay Westerveld coined the word “greenwash” over two decades ago. There are even entire websites devoted to combatting it. The word really does convey the idea so well – whitewashing the corporate image to make it look green.

I’ve been aware of greenwashing going on, though I never gave a lot of thought to the subject. I was taught, growing up – both at home and at school – to be skeptical of most advertising, assuming that most of it was about image and very little about genuine benefits from using the product or service. Particularly when it comes to health benefits, product claims need to be taken with a lot more than just one grain of salt.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how healthy sugar-coated cereals are – when they’re “part of a balanced breakfast.” And you can lose weight or improve health eating just about anything, so long as it’s part of a healthy diet – which means by definition that you’re not overeating, and that you’re eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains which balance out a few less-than-ideal food choices.

Environmentally friendly efforts often work the same way. A company can wave the green banner for being a contributor to eco-friendly efforts, but fail to mention that it devotes only a miniscule portion of its budget to those efforts. Sites such as Greenwashing Index  and greenwashing.net cite a variety of ways that companies paint themselves green while doing next to nothing that actually benefits the environment.

While I can’t think offhand of examples I’ve noticed myself, I know I have seen products in the store, and suspected that the claims of being environmentally friendly were more hype than reality. There are so many ways that numbers can be used to mislead without being guilty of an outright lie. There are so many ways that words can be used to convey an image that screams CLEAN and NATURAL, with very little reality behind the image. (Kind of like those orange plastic bags that carrots come in, that make the carrots look so fresh and appealing – until you get them home and take them out of the bag.)

I don’t agree with all the examples given, especially at greenwashing.net. I have no quarrel with calling a product “natural” that contains genetically modified plants, for instance. What does it mean to be “natural” anyway? Some people would apparently define it as untouched by humans, but there is virtually nothing than can be advertised for sale that is natural in that sense.

I’m not saying genetic engineering doesn’t need to be closely monitored, because what we can do usually outstrips what we have determined is wise to do. But in a list of environmental dangers, that one is nowhere near the top in my opinion.

I don’t know what kind of greenwashing our competitors do. But I’m glad to work for a company that cares about substance more than image.

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