What is Greenwashing?

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?

By wannabemusicologist

Wannabemusicologist muses about music as her day job. She also loves martial arts, playing the flute, cycling, and getting her knit on.

8 replies on “What is Greenwashing?”

I’m somewhat surprised to hear LEED standards described as “smoke and mirrors” since legitimately obtaining that certification means complying with detailed and measurable standards in engineering and construction. Too few builders try for even the lowest level of the LEED standard, and a building that attains the full standard uses sustainable materials, environmentally safe methods and energy-efficient doors, windows, insulation, eto me, that’s green rather than greenwashed.

On the other hand, there really is a lot of greenwashing going on. Most cleaning products with green on their labels aren’t actually environment-friendly: they’re just trying to retain the customers who might otherwise stick to baking soda, vinegar and elbow-grease or buy steam-cleaners. It’s green to stick to reusable shopping bags, but making them out of petroleum-based plastic in China isn’t very green and selling them at a profit doesn’t make a store any greener than one that sells the flimsier plastic bags at a nickel apiece to customers who haven’t brought their own. There is some merit in a company that buys land to keep it pristine or offsets its greenhouse gas emissions by sponsoring reforestation in Africa, but to be truly green it has to be more than a token PR exercise. Ideally, they should be doing that on top of taking all possible measures to conserve energy, control emissions, and maintain a safe and health environment for the communities they’re located in.

As a Canadian, I am deeply ashamed of what the Harper government is doing to absolve the oil and gas industry of their responsibility to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner…and especially to avoid wreaking environmental havoc on First Nations lands and unspoiled ecosystems. They don’t even bother with greenwashing themselves, but encourage downright blackening of the reputation of anyone who dares to suggest short-term private profits are less important to Canadians than doing right by the planet and its peoples.

I am totally horrified by what’s happening to environmental standards in our country. My father worked for the Alberta Forest service for years and was rather vehement that the government needs to be involved in making sure that companies comply to standards. I am also rather concerned about the Wildrose party winning the provincial government for similar reasons. Ugh- scary times.

The company I currently work at is a “green” tech company. The campus where I work has three buildings that are in various stages of “green,” per LEED standards. One of these buildings is platinum, meaning it is as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as they can say. At the same time, I’ve spoken with the developer of the property, and he calls it all smoke and mirrors. Now that is depressing. :P

Before this job, I was working at a green hotel that claimed to be the first “built green” hotel in the state. However, as of the time that I left back in January, they never had any official green certification and were taking very VERY few steps towards being truly environmentally friendly.

All this to say, greenwashing is prevalent in western societies because the green movement is catching fire and becoming trendy. Just because something claims to be green doesn’t mean that it is. Research!

I also wonder if “green” is what organic was like 20 years ago, a term without any certification attached to it. Perhaps in the next decade we will see the same thing happen to green on a corporate level too? And maybe the LEED standards are a start? But yeah, generally I’d agree, “bein’ green” has such huge cultural capital and that’s something advertisers absolutely capitalize on.

I also work at a company who has buildings on campus that are LEED certified and “green”. While they have made steps that other companies haven’t, like compostable take home containers in the cafeteria, there are MANY ways these buildings and this company is not green at all. Luckily I know awesome people on campus who work to change this, but it is certainly depressing.

Speaking as a former lighting designer and a person who regularly has to fill out LEED paperwork I can attest that a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. For instance, when I did a lighting layout, I rarely changed my layout based on whether it was LEED or not. I would simply move numbers around until I made it work. It was terrible, but not because I’m a terrible person who hates Mother Earth. There are certain lighting levels that one has to get to in certain situations for things to be right. And those numbers often don’t work with the current technology (light levels vs energy used). Then you get into situations where on paperwork it would look awful, but in reality it would be green. Situations like restaurants where they are using incandescent light but dimming it all down very low and using very little of the actual lamps’ wattage. Or hotels where rooms lights are rarely on or dimmed down as well.

But not all of it is smoke and mirrors, and even though what I often did was laughably not green, it did force a few meaningful changes and the technology is racing to match the policies it doesn’t currently work with, so they get specified on more jobs. Architects and those of us in the industry like to play the cynic (myself among them) but it can really help all around even if it’s not helping on the specific jobs one is working on.

I found the existence of the whole relationship between the NCC and Shell to be super depressing. Like, it’s the oil sands- it takes two barrels of oil to produce three and it’s only really viable to harvest after oil reaches a certain price point so it’s obviously NOT green. With that said, I did really like your comments in your article about Burt’s Bees and Clorox and the possibility that Clorox owning Burt’s Bees gives more people access to green personal care products and possibly raises standards at Clorox. I think that’s an example where greenwashing is possibly alright/beneficial. On the other hand, clorox still makes a lot of bleach. Mainly, the fact that walmart and shell are attempting to look green seems super weird to me.

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