About a week ago, I was walking home from campus down Bloor Street, an artery for downtown Toronto, when I was approached by a man canvassing on the street for “The Nature Conservancy of Canada.” I was interested to hear what he had to say, primarily because I had been considering donating money to an environmental advocacy organization of some kind. But, certain things (for example NCC’s mandate is to obtain land through purchase and donation and “conserve it” without any real definition about what that conservation of land entails) made me a bit uncomfortable. So, I asked for a pamphlet and continued on my trip home. When I looked up Nature Conservancy of Canada that evening, I sifted through an equally ambiguous webpage, which featured beautiful photography of the land that the organization had “conserved.” Eventually, I stumbled upon the corporate sponsorship page, which featured, among Toshiba, numerous Canadian banks and phone companies, the Shell Oil Company logo very prominently. Being from Alberta Canada, the location of the Athabasca Oil Sands, where a large deposit of oil is suspended in bituminous sands, I am familiar with Shell as a company. While the oil sands in northern Alberta have provided jobs and opportunities for countless Canadians, they have also been labelled multiple times as an environmental disaster and the have recently faced increased controversy in light of Obama’s decision to halt the construction of the Keystone Pipeline and Harper’s threats to sell Canada’s oil to other countries. So what was Shell doing sponsoring a (possibly slightly dodgy) environmental organization? I believe that what they were doing could be described as “greenwashing” but what is that? And, how does it manifest itself in our culture?
Greenwashing can be defined as the attempt on the part of corporations to appear environmentally friendly without truly changing their policy and practice. Shell supporting an environmental organization like the NCC, whose main focus is buying up land and “conserving it” in Ontario and Quebec while ignoring the relative atrocity of the oil sands is a clear example of greenwashing. Shell looks better and more environmentally friendly, without truly changing how oil is produced. But greenwashing isn’t just for large corporations. Rather, it extends to both our daily lives and the decisions our governments make. In terms of how greenwashing effects our day to day lives two examples come to mind: personal care or household products and cloth grocery bags. On the personal and household front, this can been seen in Clorox recently purchasing Burt’s Bees cosmetics company, and Clorox’s entire green cleaning line, Greenworks. While people are not apt to begrudge a cloth grocery bag, does Walmart selling them as part of their “green initiative” really make them a greener company? Greenwashing also exists in governance, a 2009 article from The Scientific American suggested that the entirety of Bush’s hydrogen fuel initiative was greenwashing, since creating hydrogen fuel requires fossil fuels.
Now, I am not suggesting that we all start living off of the grid. Rather, I think the environment, environmentalism, and the idea of wilderness are really complicated cultural constructions, and advertisers are aware of how to take advantage of our loaded ideas about the environment. It is always worthwhile to think about where our dollars (from donations, purchases, whatever) are going. Where do you see greenwashing in our society?