An important term for any concerned eco citizen, greenwashing was coined in 1986 by Jay Westervelt, an environmentalist from New York who wrote an essay about the hotel industry’s misleading practice of leaving cards in guest bathrooms asking its clients to be more environmentally minded and save water by re-using towels and linens. He argued that when in effect, this practice did nothing more than inflate the industry’s bottom line, by lowering laundry costs all the whilst promoting a disingenuous environmentally friendly company policy.
The world’s most polluting and unsustainable industries are often the biggest culprits of greenwashing. Here’s looking at you Big Oil! Not to mention all energy companies, the automakers, big food, the bottled water industry, the airlines, the shipping industry…basically any business depending on a continuous depletion of the earth’s resources (which means any company which relies on oil for its products and services to work) or whose goods’ consumption is opposed to recycling (ie fast food, which requires consumers to waste packaging-often made of plastic- constantly).
A serious problem, greenwashing pokes serious holes into the integrity of the environmental movement. It the murky space between the absence of regulation and the lack of consumer awareness. Most of us are not taught how to read product labels so we don’t know if there are harmful ingredients in the so-called green products we buy. A good example of this is cosmetics and beauty products who tout their organic certification but still contain seriously detrimental ingredients such as parabens or sodium laurel sulfate.
Consumers are often easy prey for PR companies and marketing teams. We are misled by charming language (the term free range for example, which evokes large fields full of happy chickens, see our previous Eco Insights post The Farce of Free Range for more about this), manipulated statistics and PR claims and hoodwinked by our trust in world famous brands, whose bottomless pits of advertising and branding budgets make it extremely difficult for us to see the dishonesty in their claims of eco-friendliness and green credentials. A great illustration of PR greenwashing is carbon credit offsetting. Whilst great in theory (planting trees and other carbon positive efforts to offset C02 emissions), most of the time it just means that fossil-fuel dependent companies get to look environmentally proactive in their press releases but in reality, nothing is being done to curb the reliance on C02 in the first place.
The only way to combat the greenwashing problem is to:
- Educate oneself as much as possible about environmental issues and practices,
- Demand stronger and clearer regulation with regards to environmental certification from our governments,
- Ditto re: advertising standards,
- Be more vigilant in terms of reading labels and questioning product claims, and
- Hold brands and companies to higher standards of integrity and companies to stricter green policies.