What is Greenwashing?

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Greenwashing is a marketing technique where a company falsely claims its environmental responsibility. As more and more consumers are concerned about sustainability and the environment, an increasing number of corporations have come to the fore, claiming to be improving their environmental practices and reforming their industries. While this may certainly be true in some cases, many of the environmental stewardship claims made by companies are actually false or, at the very least, extremely misleading.

The term is a portmanteau of “whitening”, in the sense of covering up wrongdoing, and “green”, a common term used to refer to environmentally sound practices. The green movement encompasses sources of food, buildings, energy and everything in between, and it also represents a substantial source of potential income. An increasing number of citizens, especially in the First World, are willing to pay a premium for “green” products. In addition to environmentally sensitive companies that are genuinely trying to do business ethically, a number of corporations launch extensive greenwashing campaigns detailing all the ways in which they are environmentally responsible. For unsuspecting consumers, glowing greenwash ads may suggest that the company is reputable and responsible.

Many companies in traditionally environmentally controversial sectors have launched greenwashing campaigns. Countless oil and auto companies, for example, have glossy ads in major magazines touting their environmental programs. Other companies use misleading labels on their products, or astroturf organizations to support their claims of environmentally sound business practices. Many greenwashing campaigns are nothing more than a highly misleading marketing technique. This makes it doubly difficult for companies that are really trying to do business ethically, as it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish between greenwashing and true advertising.

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Several things can be used as clues for consumers to detect a greenwashing campaign. The first thing to do is follow the company’s money and paper trails. Consumers should look for donation records, for example, to see what type of organization the company donates to and to which it belongs. This can also reveal astroturfing organizations and provide a more complete picture of the company’s business ethics. Consumers should also look for information that is not discussed in the greenwashing campaign, such as pollution statistics from that company’s factories.

Another important clue is consistency. Many companies announce a new environmental program to great fanfare and then quietly cut funding. Consumers remember ads promoting the program, but they don’t check whether or not the company follows it. In addition, consumers should observe company practices abroad, especially in countries where environmental laws are lax. If the companies’ claims of sound environmental practices aren’t the case overseas, the company is likely going green.

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