When the British multinational company ICI, now Zeneca, ran a series of full-color ads in Malaysian newspapers touting paraquat – an herbicide banned in five countries – as “environmentally friendly,” they were practicing a particular form of marketing deception. The goal of this deception was diverting attention from paraquat’s links to the poisoning of thousands of Malaysian workers and its listing among the world’s “dirty dozen” by the Pesticide Action Network.
Zeneca was altering and obscuring the truth in order to cast themselves in a more flattering environmental light. They were Greenwashing. More commonly, we see this practice on the ingredient labels of food and skincare products, when all other ingredients are identified by name except for these: “natural flavors” and “natural fragrances.”
Where It Came From
Greenwashing, as a term, goes back to a 1986 essay by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt that examined the hospitality industry’s practice of asking guests to reuse their towels, or sleep on the same sheets two nights in a row, in order to “save the environment.” This while doing very little to save water or energy on its own — on its lawns and vehicle fleets, or with its appliances and lighting.
There’s a different version of the term’s origins, found in the Introduction to Greenpeace’s stopgreenwash.org, where it says Greenwashing was coined “around 1990 when some of America’s worst polluters (including DuPont, Chevron, Bechtel, the American Nuclear Society, and the Society of Plastics Industry) tried to pass themselves off as eco-friendly at a trade fair taking place in Washington, DC.” Either way, Greenwashing continues to illustrate “the cynical use of environmental themes to whitewash corporate misbehavior.”
Preventing the TruthThe word itself is derived from “whitewashing,” a practice whose very intent is deception, to prevent people – through words or actions – from learning the truth, “to cover up faults in order to absolve a wrongdoer from blame,” according to dictionary.reference.com.
So it goes with greenwashing. The word might be fairly new, but the concept and practice is older than all of us. Even in recent history, the practice predates the term by nearly 30 years. In the mid-to-late 60s, as the contemporary environmental movement was growing in visibility and influence, newly green images of corporations were so sudden and common that Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry Mander, and others at the time, referred to the phenomenon as “ecopornography.”
Greenwashing can take many forms. You can find it in an energy company ad campaign touting a new “green technology” when the bulk of that company’s business involves non-green pollution. You can find it in a new product line, “Pure and Natural” disposable diapers, where a small change in the standard product – a piece of organic cotton on the front of the diaper – is exaggerated to suggest a major eco-forward change. Greenpeace, on the front page of its stopgreenwash.org website, lists four Greenwash Criteria, or categories: Dirty Business, Ad Bluster, Political Spin, and It’s The Law, Stupid. You can find descriptions for all four categories here.
Why It Matters
At its most harmful, greenwashing is bad for the environment because it encourages consumers to do the opposite of what’s good for the environment. At its least obvious, greenwashing perpetuates deception in important environmental discussions, diminishing those discussions to the level of advertising and sleight of hand.
Closer to home, greenwashing in the natural products world takes cynical and dangerous advantage of people’s desires to make good choices. No one thinks petro-chemicals are good for them. But they do think natural products are. Disguising one as the other is more than just marketing or business. It’s ethical and moral failure. Greenwashing in relation to people’s good intentions is not only harmful, but insidious. It
renders the true meaning of natural (even organic) impotent, while consciously undermining people’s efforts to be wise in choosing the products they buy.
When it comes to being natural, healthy, and green, consumer education and awareness is crucial, not only for personal well-being, but in hopes of changing how industries behave. If companies engaging in Greenwashing spent half as much time and money improving their core business practices as they’ve spent to make themselves appear eco- friendly, they might have made a real difference. And we might all be farther down the road to a sustainable balance between what we take and the impact our taking has.