WHAT IS GREENWASHING?
IT’S WHITEWASHING, BUT WITH A GREEN BRUSH.
Everyone’s heard the expression “whitewashing” — it’s defined as “a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, especially in a political context.”
“Greenwashing” is the same premise, but in an environmental context.
It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.
A classic example is an energy company that runs an advertising campaign touting a “green” technology they’re working on — but that “green” technology represents only a sliver of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business, or may be marketed on the heels of an oil spill or plant explosion.
Or a hotel chain that calls itself “green” because it allows guests to choose to sleep on the same sheets and reuse towels, but actually does very little to save water and energy where it counts — on its grounds, with its appliances and lighting, in its kitchens, and with its vehicle fleet.
Or a bank that’s suddenly “green” because you can conduct your finances online, or a grocery store that’s “green” because they’ll take back your plastic grocery bags, or …
You get the picture.
There are plenty of good companies telling their environmental stories to the world, and even some who aren’t but should be. Some do it well; others don’t know where to begin. So what is considered good green marketing?
Here are a few tips on what to look for so you don’t get greenwashed, or if you’re a company, so you’re not greenwashing yourselves:
- The Truth: If you see a green ad, take a look at the company as a whole. Can you easily find more information about their sustainable business practices on their website? Do they have a comprehensive environmental story? Is there believable information to substantiate the green claims you saw in the ad? If not, buyer beware.
- The Whole Truth: Next, try this. Google the company name plus the word “environment” and see what pops up. This is far from scientific, but if consumers or environmental advocates have a beef with the company’s track record, something’s bound to pop up.
- And Nothing But the Truth: “I know it when I see it.” Those are the words of Supreme Court Justice Warren Potter in a ruling on hard-core pornography in 1964. As weird as it may seem, those are words to live by for the consumer and green marketing claims. If you spot a green ad, how does it strike your gut? Does it ring true and authentic, or is it obviously hype? Smart shoppers abound globally, and your own scrutiny of green marketing claims is one more item to throw into your shopping cart.
Seems like anything and everything has “gone green” these days. Airlines, car companies, retailers, restaurants — heck, even networks and stadiums. Thankfully, more often than not, that’s a good thing. It’s only bad if it’s greenwashing — that’s bad for the environment, consumers, and, ultimately, for the very businesses doing the greenwashing — whether they mean to or not.
Environment: At its very worst, greenwashing is bad for the environment because it can encourage consumers en masse to do the opposite of what’s good for the environment. At its most benign, greenwashing makes claims that are neither good nor bad for the environment — it’s just making green claims to sell more stuff.
Consumers: We’ve all heard of lemon laws and bait-and-switch. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of, especially when it comes to money. So, the next time you see an environmental claim, ask yourself about “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth” before you buy. The last thing you want to do is spend money on a product or service you believe is doing right by the environment, but in reality is not — or not as much as the ad might lead you to believe.
Businesses: Smart businesses are finding out that doing right by the environment actually does increase profitability in many cases. With so many easy ways for businesses to reduce their environmental impact or improve their products and processes, it’s just sad when they don’t. It’s even worse when they don’t make changes and claim to be a green company just to push their agenda. When properly trained, consumers see right through this “green screen.” Then greenwashing backfires, hurting the company’s reputation and, ultimately, their sales.
That’s why we’ve put together the Greenwashing Index. The more consumers see through greenwashing, the more it will fail. And that’s better for the economy and the environment.
When you rate an ad with the Greenwashing Index, it will generate a score based on your response to the following statements. Your score will be included in the ad’s overall score, and your comments will be added to the tally. Scoring is similar to golf: High scores are undesirable (for the advertiser).
- THE AD MISLEADS WITH WORDS.
Do you believe the ad misleads the viewer/reader about the company’s/product’s environmental impact through the things it says? Does it seem the words are trying to make you believe there is a green practice when there isn’t? Focus on the words only — what do you think the ad is saying?
- THE AD MISLEADS WITH VISUALS AND/OR GRAPHICS.
Do you think the advertiser has used green or natural images in a way designed to make you think the product/company is more environmentally friendly than it really is?
- THE AD MAKES A GREEN CLAIM THAT IS VAGUE OR SEEMINGLY UNPROVABLE.
Does the ad claim environmental benefits without sufficiently identifying for you what they are? Has the advertiser provided a source for claims or for more information? Are the claims related to the company/product?
- THE AD OVERSTATES OR EXAGGERATES HOW GREEN THE PRODUCT/COMPANY/SERVICE ACTUALLY IS.
Do you believe the advertiser is overstating how green the product/company actually is? Are the green claims made by the ad believable? Do you think it’s possible for the product/company to do the things depicted/stated?
- THE AD LEAVES OUT OR MASKS IMPORTANT INFORMATION, MAKING THE GREEN CLAIM SOUND BETTER THAN IT IS.
Do you think the ad exists to divert attention from something else the company does? Do you believe the relevant collateral consequences of the product/service are considered in the ad? Does it seem to you something is missing from the ad?
Greenwashing is like whitewashing with a green (environmental) brush: companies and organizations making themselves and their products sound or look like they’re really helping the environment. And they lure you in — creating the perception that you can help, too. In some cases you are helping. In some cases, it’s greenwashing.
And the challenges of climate change are too important for us to be distracted.
This site is here to make sure that doesn’t happen. Our goal is to educate consumers about how to “read” an ad and encourage them to decide for themselves if what they’re seeing is greenwashing. Our hope is that with a better-informed public, businesses will start to:
- Have a sustainable business before they advertise they’re a sustainable business
- Be accountable for the sustainable practices they claim to have
That way we can put an end to the greenwashing and get busy with real environmental change.