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Greenwashing for Dummies

Don't worry, that plant just produces BS, which is carbon neutral. Really.

BP (formerly British Petroleum) spent millions of dollars to rebrand itself as an environmentally conscious company, Beyond Petroleum, promoting its development of solar and other alternative energy sources. It’s true that BP has a significant solar energy component. However, statistics that they did not include in those ads were the billions of dollars they spent in continued investments in fossil fuels and that one of the other “alternative” energy sources included natural gas-fueled power plants. This is just one example of greenwashing.

What is greenwashing? The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwashing as, “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Dan Stafford, a program director at Boston-based Environmental Action, explains that greenwashing can exist on two levels. The first is a company that markets a product as eco-friendly (even if it isn’t) for the sake of appealing to the consumer, and has not changed its business practices at all. Companies at the next level may, for example, “spend millions of dollars advertising themselves as a green energy company, when, in fact, they are an oil company … and they work insanely hard trying to remove environmental protections. So they are actually actively working against the environment while actively promoting themselves as environmentally conscious.” Cough, BP, cough.

Why care about greenwashing? When greenwashing occurs the consumer is, at the very least, misled. Companies may promote a single product or campaign that is green, while sweeping the rest of their environmentally-unfriendly practices under the rug. It’s this partial disclosure of information and lack of transparency that makes greenwashing so dangerous. Sonia Marcus, sustainability coordinator at Ohio University, says, “(Greenwashing) diminishes the power of the individual consumer to advance the sustainability movement through buying decisions because they just don’t have good information to go on.”

How can you recognize greenwashing? This can be tricky. “Greenwashing is not something - except in the most egregious cases - that you can really perceive immediately,” Sonia explains, “It’s something that really you discover through further research.” To start, if you feel skeptical, get online and check out what organizations that track greenwashing are saying (see sidebar).

What can you do about greenwashing? How can consumers get companies to stop greenwashing? One way is to push for laws that prohibit it. Another way is to get the companies to actually make truly green products. “Ultimately, you don’t want them to stop advertising green, you want them to start being what they’re advertising,” says Dan.

Money talks … and so can you. “There is no more powerful message that you can send than not spending your money with a particular company and making it clear to them that that is the reason you are not buying their product,” says Sonia. If a label makes a specific claim or suggests that the product is low-impact, call the 1-800 number listed on the label and ask about it. What did the company do to ensure that the label is accurate?

Be willing to pay up front. If stricter requirements force companies to make greener products, the companies will pass the production costs onto the consumer. As consumers, we must be willing to pay the true cost of a product up front, in the purchase price, as opposed to buying a cheap product, then paying later to try and clean up the environmental mess created by its production. As Sonia puts it, “It’s actually cheaper for us to pay for a certain amount of environmental protection as part of our purchases than it is to pay for remediation of very aggravated environmental insults after the fact.”

Egregious Cases

Fiji (bottled) Water: “Every Drop is Green”

"Clean Coal"

When Green is Gray
Apple marketed an eco-friendly laptop (made using recycled materials and without toxic chemicals such as PVC), reduced the size of packaging in all products, and now accepts e-waste with no extra charge to customers; however, the company will not release information about its overall carbon footprint nor about where exactly the e-waste goes. It’s good to acknowledge and support improvements from companies, but continued pressure from consumers and environmental groups will hopefully lead to full disclosure.