Is It Green or Greenwashed?

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Photo credit: Joshua Coleman/Unsplash

By Hunter Marion

Sophisticated marketing might be the most dangerous method big polluters are using to undermine environmental efforts. Dangerous not only for sustaining the sale of environmentally harmful products, but also for convincing environmentally conscious consumers to buy these products. This is the marketing trick generally referred to as “greenwashing” and it occurs when “a company, product, or business practice is falsely or excessively promoted as being environmentally friendly.”

The term greenwashing derives from an article written by Jay Westerveld describing a particular experience he had in Fiji in 1986. Westerveld went surfing near a prominent hotel, the Beachcomber Resort. When he snuck into the resort looking for a towel, he noticed a peculiar message posted above them. It informed guests that they had a choice: either use their towel again (which would allegedly help to preserve the local ecology) or immediately wash it (thus polluting the local water table). This note struck Westerveld as hypocritical, seeing as the resort was then undergoing major expansion, thereby ruining the surrounding aquatic environment regardless of which way they cleaned towels. Since the article’s publication, the term has transformed into describing corporate attempts to capitalize on the growing environmental movement.

Before “greenwashing” entered the public lexicon in the late 1980s, corporations had been using similar tactics since the 1960s. U.S. electrical company, Westinghouse, portrayed its nuclear power plants as “odorless […] neat, clean, and safe,” despite several widely-publicized nuclear core issues and irresponsible nuclear waste disposal. In the 1980s, Chevron’s “People Do” and DuPont’s “Ode to Joy” ad campaigns manipulated images of bears, butterflies, dolphins, and other seemingly happy animals to repackage their oil extraction as eco-friendly -even beneficial to the endangered wildlife. Other examples of greenwashing are perhaps the two most famous concepts recognized by the average eco-minded U.S. consumer: the Crying Indian and our “carbon footprint.” The Crying Indian was neither crying, nor an Indian, instead he was an Italian-American actor named Espera Oscar DeCorti in redface. The producers of the ad, Keep America Beautiful, were a combined effort by the American Can Co., the Owens Illinois Glass Co., Coca Cola, and the Dixie Cup Co. to shift the blame of littering and plastics pollution from corporations onto individual consumers. The “blame the consumer” strategy was later revamped by BP when they asked consumers to regulate their own “carbon footprint,” meanwhile minimizing their own global impact (a practice called “decoupling”). E. Ben Harrison, is often credited as the architect behind this strategy. Through his PR firm, Harrison & Associates, and the National Environmental Development Agency (NEDA), Harrison encouraged his global corporate clients to adopt greenwashing to prevent losing significant profits and escape scrutiny from the growing environmental movement.

Besides blaming consumers for global warning, big companies also use greenwashing to sell products that have little to no eco-friendly value. Products like soap, shampoo, make-up, and bottled water often appear in ads featuring pristine nature or wild animals, have arbitrary certifications like “100% natural” or “100% eco-friendly,” display vague or misleading details about their product, such as “[t]his product contains 50% more recycled content” (also called “selective disclosure”), or are simply packaged in green. Some products even claim to be “CFC-free.” Chlorofluorocarbons have been banned from manufactured goods since 1987. Companies will also trade one heavily polluting product for another, then claim “green product” status. Differentiating between greenwashed products and truly eco-friendly products has become a taxing, often infuriating task. To avoid greenwashed products, the consumer should avoid ambiguous statements similar to those above, be distrustful of overtly green imagery or contradictory packaging, pay close attention to the labels of the guaranteeing body, and refer to third-party monitoring organizations. With awareness and careful deliberation, the average consumer can better avoid greenwashed products.

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