Don't be Guilty of Greenwashing

Sept. 5, 2008
Deceptive efforts deserve criticism; but let us know about your best efforts to save the planet.

There’s a billboard on Interstate 294 outside Chicago on which a contracting company promotes its ability not just to finish your basement crawlspace but to make it “green.”

Greenpeace – not a popular source quote in business magazine – nevertheless makes the valid point: “The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”

“Greenwashing,” a combination of the words green and whitewashing, is moving into the popular vernacular. The term describes efforts, mostly by the business community, to create the illusion that a company is implementing practices meant to improve the environment when it is not really doing so.

Greenwashing also can describe genuinely beneficial efforts that either don’t offset a company’s other harmful practices or instances when significantly more money or time has been spent by the company to advertise that it’s green than it expends on being green.

Wikipedia says the term was coined in a 1986 essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who was writing about the hotel industry's then-new practice of placing signs in each room to promote the reuse of guest-towels. Rather than saving the planet, the real motivation was to save money on laundering, Westerveld said. And he noted that, in most cases, the hotels made little or no effort toward waste recycling or other environmentally responsible things.

Greenpeace on its web site features three greenwashing campaigns, involving General Motors, coal and nuclear power. Not a word about the food industry.

However, we have a couple thousand words about the food industry and its green efforts in our cover story this month.The very laudable efforts of Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola Enterprises, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, PepsiCo, Stonyfield Farm and Unilever are chronicled in these pages. Plus, Cargill, Danone, Dole, Nestle, Red Bull and Sara Lee are added to the online version. 

Some of the numbers are impressive: Kellogg is saving 7 million gallons of water in a Mexico plant; Coca-Cola aims for 100 percent recycling of its cans and PET bottles; the solar array at PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay distribution center generates 350,000 kWh of electricity; Unilever has developed a software program to assess the green effects of product development changes; all 12 U.S. Anheuser-Busch breweries soon will be producing renewable fuels.

Stonyfield Farm really is a pioneer in this area, its efforts predating even the reuse-your-hotel-towel signs. Now, the yogurt company claims it’s carbon-neutral. An interesting little case history we came across was from General Mills. With just simple changes to the Hamburger Helper package – which included a “redesign” to more compact pasta – General Mills figures it will reduce the use of paper fiber by 890,000 lbs., trim greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent and take 500 trucks off the road.

As a final note – and warning -- let me cite a December 2007 report from TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company. The Six Sins of Greenwashing found that 99 percent of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed for the study were guilty of some degree of greenwashing. It’s a little difficult to believe those numbers, but therein lies the dangerous side of greenwashing watchdogs: You can do 99 good things on the environmental front, but do just one bad thing and you’re labeled a fraud.
Nevertheless, and with liberal grains of salt, TerraChoice’s “six sins of greenwashing” are worth a look:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off (For example, “energy-efficient” electronics that contain hazardous materials).
  • Sin of No Proof (Shampoos claiming to be “certified organic,” but with no verifiable certification)
  • Sin of Vagueness (Products claiming to be 100 percent natural may have naturally occurring substances that are hazardous, such as arsenic and formaldehyde).
  • Sin of Irrelevance (Products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago – I think my green crawlspace example fits here).
  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils (Organic cigarettes or “environmentally friendly” pesticides).
  • Sin of Fibbing (Products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard).

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