Dear EarthTalk: I hear the term “greenwashing” a lot these days but am still not sure exactly what it means. Can you enlighten?
— Ruth Markell, Indianapolis, IN
In essence, greenwashing involves falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations. CorpWatch, a non-profit dedicated to keeping tabs on the social responsibility (or lack thereof) of U.S.-based companies, characterizes greenwashing as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”
One of the groups leading the charge against greenwashing is Greenpeace. “Corporations are falling all over themselves,” reports the group, “to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”
Greenpeace launched its Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 to call out bad actors and help consumers make better choices. The most common greenwashing strategy, the group says, is when a company touts an environmental program or product while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.
Another involves what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster”: using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual environmental problems—or spending more money bragging about green behavior than on actual deeds. In some cases, companies may boast about corporate green commitments while lobbying behind the scenes against environmental laws.
Greenpeace also urges vigilance about green claims that brag about something the law already requires: “For example, if an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”
For consumers, the best way to avoid getting “greenwashed” is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just trying to look that way to make more money. Look beyond advertising claims, read ingredient lists or ask employees about the real skinny on their company’s environmental commitment.
Also, look for labels that show a given offering has been vetted by a reliable third-party. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. Just because a label says “made with organic ingredients” or “all-natural” does not mean the product qualifies as Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the hype.
Even some eco-labels are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, look it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+ different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors. The free online resource provides information on which company or group is behind each certification and whether or not independent third-party assessments are required.