What is Greenwashing?

We’ve all seen labels in the store boasting of their product’s various sustainable origins. While it’s perfectly fair for a company to promote their product’s environmentally friendly origins, “
greenwashing” refers to deceptive advertising that attempts to paint a company or product as environmentally responsible without actually “walking the walk.” Part of being an informed consumer involves knowing the difference, so I’ll do my best to give some tips on how to do that.

  • Check the Certification- Companies who want to promote a “green*” product generally seek certification from a third party agency who is responsible for ensuring, for example, that trees in a wood or paper product are harvested sustainably, or that fish are caught without overfishing. This seems like a great, reliable way to ensure that educated people somewhere have looked over this product’s supply chain and ensured that, yes, this product lives up to their standards. But all of these groups are not created equal. Some extractive industries like logging companies have set up their own agencies which give certification based on the extractor’s criteria rather than what might objectively be considered sustainable. As a result of conflicts of interest, their criteria can be quite a bit more lax, and they are often difficult to tell apart from other, more reputable groups. There’s a whole alphabet soup of groups out there, and they’ve all been met with different levels of criticism: The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, LEED Certification, Sustainable Business Initiative, and so forth. My best advice here (because I want to avoid the risk of unfairly singling out any particular group) is to do your homework every time you see any product claiming certification by a third party. A quick Google search of the group’s name should give you a good idea of their credibility among watchdog and consumer advocacy groups.


*At some point I wanted to raise my personal objections with the word “green” as it is used in marketing, so why not now? It’s always struck me as awfully kitsch and horribly misused. “Green” is a great little, monosyllabic buzzword to stick in front of any old tacky product, and the way it’s used in marketing seems to be designed to promote quick judgments- “yep this is green, so it must be good.” As always, do your research.


  • Consider The Supply Chain- If you’re looking to “vote with your dollar” and live more sustainably, you’ve probably already encountered people saying “buy local!” all the time. But there are quite a few great reasons to do so. Oceanic shipping alone accounts for 3% of global carbon emissions (more than it sounds like; good for 6th in the world if they were counted as a country). A global distributor like Wal-Mart, try as they might, will simply never be environmentally friendly with business as usual, since so many of their products have to cross oceans to get from factory to store. In short, it is best to “think globally and act locally.” A lot of hidden carbon emissions went into getting the food you eat onto your table.

  • Think of the investment on the company’s part- The term greenwashing originated with an environmentalist finding one of those “re-use your hotel towel to save the planet!” cards. Jay Westerveld realized that washing a few towels less frequently, while it would save freshwater, does much more to save the hotel money than anything else. The ulterior motive is to put an undeserved sense of environmental stewardship behind a customer-driven (and uncompensated) cost-cutting measure. Westerveld was especially bemused when he realized how many other ways that big luxury hotels can be appallingly wasteful.

    My advice on this is simply to remember that nothing really worth doing is easy, and protecting the environment certainly falls into this category. Washing your towel less often, or anything on cute lists like “7 easy things you can do to save the environment!” will be a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to solving the planet-sized, systemic problems that humans have caused. This isn’t to discourage anyone from following any of that advice (in fact you should), you should simply be aware that the scale of the solution must fit the scale of the problem. And that will entail unprecedented changes.

Have you seen any examples of greenwashing lately?


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