What is greenwashing?
Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, greenwashing refers to the practice of 1) falsely or deceptively advertising an organization’s environmental efforts, 2) spending more resources to promote how green an organization is than were invested in actual environmental efforts, and/or 3) relying on tokenistic actions. Greenwashing is essentially a deceptive strategy to make an organization appear greener than it actually is.
In the 1990s, consumers were beginning to lean towards greener products. To attract more customers, companies began to claim that they sell green products or do other environmentally-friendly projects, sometimes more than they should. For example, a car company would promote their hybrid Escape SUV as green but later be revealed as one of the worst concerning carbon emissions.
Although the term gained popularity in the 1990s, greenwashing was already happening before that. For example, an oil company would release a series of expensive TV and print ads to showcase a wildlife protection campaign they were doing. They wanted to position themselves as a green company, but at the same time, they were violating the clean air act, the clean water act, and polluting wildlife refuges. It would also be speculated that the ads cost way more than the wildlife campaign. That company selectively disclosed the goods but hid the uglies. Some estimated they spent more resources on promotion than actual efforts.
Tokenism is also an aspect of greenwashing. If a company’s efforts only address a trivial aspect of a larger problem without further change or actions, they risk greenwashing. For example, a bottled water company may invest in better recycling technologies while continuing to exploit scarce drinking water resources and while still using plastic bottles.
How to catch greenwashing?
One way to catch greenwashing is to know what is truly happening within an organization and/or the production process. Two common ways to assess the organization and/or the product are 1) inventory reporting and 2) impact quantification. With inventory reporting, we want to know the environmental metrics of a company. For example, carbon emissions, water usage, etc. With impact quantification, we want to measure the environmental impact an organization or product has made. Truthful ESG reporting can also give insights into the green performance of an organization, but it is not without fail. Check out our previous article on ESG to find out why.
We have more about greenwashing to come, including actionable tips for companies to do better if they want more than just empty green claims. Stay tuned!