Greenwash (a portmanteau of green ideologies and whitewash) is a term that is used to describe a company, industry, government, politician or any organisation that advertises positive environmental practices while acting in the opposite. It is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by the concerned to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.
The term came into use in the early 1990s, most notably as the title of an article in the 1991 March/April issue of Mother Jones magazine. The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines Greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”.
The US-based watchdog group CorporateWatch describes Greenwash as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment”. This definition was shaped by the group’s focus on corporate behaviour and the rise of corporate green advertising. However, governments, political candidates, trade associations and non-government organisations have also been accused of Greenwashing.
The term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green, rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices. This is often portrayed by changing the name or label of a product to give the feeling of nature; for example, putting an image of a forest on a bottle of harmful chemicals. Environmentalists often use Greenwashing to describe energy companies, which are traditionally the largest polluters.
 Detecting Greenwash
Five years after Rio, Greenpeace suggested some criteria for determining whether business claims are “green” or just “Greenwash”. While accepting that there will never be a perfect litmus test for Greenwash, and in the hope of encouraging greater public debate on the issue, Greenpeace offered the following four-point “CARE” checklist.
“CARE” stands for Core business, Advertising record, Research & development (R&D) funding, and Environmental lobbying. A corporation which fails on any of the four tests below is probably in the Greenwash business.
- Core business: If a company's core business is based primarily on an activity that has been identified as significantly contributing to environmental pollution or destruction, there is a strong presumption that any assertions that it supports environmentally sustainable development are Greenwash.
For example, oil and coal companies, whose products have been determined by UN scientists to be the largest source of man-made greenhouse gases, are by definition engaged in an environmentally unsustainable business. Scientists tell us that each ton of coal or barrel of oil burned, adds to the risk of dangerous climate change. In short, there is a fundamental contradiction between the environmental (and legal) requirement to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), and the production and sale of increasing quantities of coal and oil, the main sources of CO2.
Similarly, forestry companies which log in ancient forests, the richest terrestrial reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet, make it almost impossible to implement the commitments made by 165 countries to protect species in the 1992 International Convention of Biological Diversity. Currently, it is estimated that 50 to 100 species become extinct each day, and forest clearing is a major contributor. This is another example of how a core business can be in fundamental contradiction with a sustainable environment.
In some cases, companies with a highly destructive core business have launched or expanded initiatives for cleaner or less destructive processes and products. Oil companies moving into solar energy is an example. However, Greenpeace believes that such measures warrant the “Greenwashing” tag unless the parent company publicly acknowledges the fundamental unsustainability of the core business, and makes a serious commitment to phasing out of those activities and towards the cleaner business within a near-term timeframe.
- Advertising practice: Corporate advertising budgets can be huge and their effects on shaping consumer behaviour are enormous. It is understood that at least 10 corporations have annual advertising budgets of over US$1 billion each. Collectively, global advertising budgets run into many billions of dollars, significantly more than most governments and corporations spend on environmental improvement. This fact alone justifies continuous and detailed public scrutiny of the advertising practices and claims of industry.
With this power goes a responsibility that cannot be regulated by local advertising standards alone. Corporations must assume the responsibility for informing the public about the environmental impacts of buying and using their products. Many public opinion polls show that consumers would like to be given a wider choice in products, and are even prepared to pay more for “greener” products.
The “Greenwash” tag applies to any corporation that uses the media to make environmental claims about one or more of its cleaner products, while continuing “business as usual” practices which rely, for example, on large amounts of natural capital, are energy intensive or inefficient, or which involve production and release of toxic chemicals. Use of the media by corporations for public debate about whether certain practices are more or less sustainable may represent a genuine attempt to inform and educate. However, where large advertising budgets and slick campaigns appear to justify maintenance of “business as usual” practices which have been widely questioned by environmental scientists, the “Greenwash” tag might also be applicable.
- Research and development: Large corporations frequently have large funds set aside for R&D. These are used to identify and bring into production new products and manufacturing processes. Here, the Greenwash test is to what extent these budgets are allocated to developing practices which are more sustainable, or are simply reinforcing old, unsustainable practices. In view of the size and purpose of these funds, which can easily amount to many millions of dollars, and the fact that a high proportion of the world's scientists now work for industry, there is a special opportunity for use of corporate R&D in the development of cleaner technologies.
For example, a paper manufacturing corporation which spends most, or all, of its R&D budget on developing a closed cycle production process which eliminates use of chlorine, minimises use of water and energy, and avoids use of old growth forest as feedstock is moving in the right direction.
By contrast, a coal power utility which spends its R&D on reducing pollutants such as sulphur, without addressing the fact that any combustion of coal creates harmful greenhouse gases and other pollutants, is not using its R&D for sustainable ends. In such a case, only a major commitment towards development of clean renewable energy forms would represent a real contribution towards a more sustainable planet.
- Environmental lobbying record: Corporations that say one thing, and do another, do the entire business sector an injustice. For example, a corporation that projects itself as in favour of pollution reduction loses all credibility if, at the same time, it actively lobbies against measures that are designed to reduce pollution.
Politicians, journalists and NGOs have too often encountered examples of businesses claiming green credentials or aims, but which lobby (frequently through coalition or “front” groups) against increases in taxes or controls on polluting activities. Sometimes there have been threats or examples of closing plants and moving to countries with lower environmental standards. Such “double-speak” entitles any corporation caught in the act to the “Greenwash” tag.
By contrast, a responsible corporation will use its name and experience to lobby in favour of policies and practices that reduce pollution. Greenpeace has applauded, and even worked with, groups of businesses serious about developing better environmental standards and urging their adoption by government or industry associations.
 Current Examples
In July 2006, Brandweek examined some Greenwashing efforts by companies in light of a branding survey claiming that most consumers don't care anyway.
A study by Landor Associates, part of the WPP Group, found that “58 per cent of the general population” is “self-proclaimed ‘Non-Green’ individuals [who] do not care about environmentally friendly practices, including recycling, corporate social responsibility, or natural and/or organic ingredients ... 25 per cent of the respondents consider themselves ‘Green Interested’, meaning that while this group is concerned about the environment, it is not active in its defense. The remaining 17 per cent surveyed are, in fact, ‘Green Motivated’, meaning that they feel it’s very important for a company to be Green”.
Brandweek observed “the noise in the green marketing space has grown louder in recent months” with “Dow Chemical’s ‘Human Element’ campaign ... Shell Oil launched a $30 million marketing campaign in June ... General Electric continues to build on its ‘Ecomagination’ effort... In June a public/private partnership titled EcoZone was launched, created by EcoMedia, a New York-based media company. Such companies as DaimlerChrysler, Alcoa and AbTech ... pay up to $5,000 per sign to put their logos on billboards carrying environmental messages ...”
“Green is green as in the color of money,” said Judy Hu at General Electric. “It is about a business opportunity, and we believe we can increase our revenue behind these Ecomagination products and services.”
In December 2005, the New York Times noted that corporations, including Ford, Exxon Mobil, BP, General Electric and Alcan, “appear to be spending ever-bigger chunks of their advertising budgets to promote” what critics call Greenwashing. New ad campaigns from WPP, Omnicom Group, and Interpublic Group tout corporate “environmental do-goodism”.
“Oil companies, under attack for reaping windfall profits from soaring fuel prices, are trying to position themselves as part of the solution to energy problems rather than the cause. Manufacturers of fuel-efficient automobiles, jet engines or other green products are recognizing that they can burnish their image even as they promote their products. And companies in all industries are trying to make socially conscious investors and customers comfortable about buying their products and shares.”
In January 2006, Bloomberg reported that a recent ad Ford claims it is “dramatically ramping up its commitment” to more environmentally friendly cars. “Left unstated in Ford’s recent ads: In 2003, the No. 2 U.S. automaker after General Motors, dropped its promise to increase average fuel efficiency on its sport utility fleet. In 2004, the company joined other automakers in suing to block a California law that would limit emissions of gases linked to global warming. And even if Ford meets its goals, low-emission hybrids by 2010 would make up less than 4 per cent of the company’s fleet.” Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, called some of Ford’s claims “questionable”, telling Bloomberg, “They're definitely exploiting the fashion of environmentally friendly vehicles.”
Another example of Greenwashing is the American government’s Clear Skies Initiative, originally proposed in 2002, which environmentalists claim weakens air pollution laws. The Clear Skies legislation was set up to create a mandatory programme that would dramatically reduce power plant emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury by setting a national cap on each pollutant. However, although the plan caused some net reductions in pollution, environmentalists believe many communities would still be threatened by more pollution.
- Kenny Bruno, “The Greenpeace Guide to Greenwash”, Greenpeace International, 1992
- Bob Burton, “A Beginner's Guide To Greenwash”, Mining Monitor, July 2000
- Joshua Karliner, “A Brief History of Greenwash”, CorpWatch, March 22, 2001
- Chris MacDonald and Melissa Whellams, “What is Greenwashing, and Why is it a Problem?”
- “Greenwash!” David Beers and Catherine Capellaro, (1991) Mother Jones, March/April:88
- www.landor.com, News: “New Study by Landor Associates Reveals Most Consumers Don’t Care About ‘Green’”
- Brandweek – ‘Companies Find It's Not Easy Marketing Green,’ July 24, 2006, by Wendy Melillo and Steve Miller
- The New York Times, December 22, 2005: Media: Advertising; “It’s Getting Crowded on the Environmental Bandwagon,” by Claudia Deutsch