When we hear someone telling a story in which it's clear their hiding certain unpleasant facts for the purpose of protecting his or her image, we accuse them of whitewashing the story. We've heard it before – business leaders or politicians getting up on a podium to explain themselves during a scandal, only to hear a highly sanitized version of what really happened.
Greenwashing, like whitewashing, is an attempt to hide the truth. Except instead hiding the details of personal wrongdoing, organizations are making the finer points of their "sustainable" operations obscure to the public.
What is greenwashing exactly?
Greenwashing has become so commonplace that it actually has earned itself an entry in the Dictionary. According to Dictionary.com, greenwashing is "the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization's environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities." Ouch.
When it comes to greenwashing, Scientific American noted that rather than making their products truly sustainable, a company spends more money and effort on simply marketing its products as such. The practice of greenwashing has become increasingly common thanks to a consumer market that is increasingly receptive to buying products that are environmentally friendly.
You could probably pick out several examples of greenwashing without very much effort. For example, hotels are notorious for it. They say they've "gone green" when all they do is let guests use a towel more than once. Things that would have an actual positive impact on the environment, like new energy efficient equipment or a commercial solar installation don't seem to be part of the package.
How to spot a greenwasher
Blatant greenwashing examples may give us a chuckle at the expense of the marketing departments of the offending businesses, but in reality it's actually a serious matter. These companies are getting people to pay, sometimes premium prices, for items that actually have nothing to substantiate their "green" claims. These are often consumers with a real desire to make sustainable choices.
Thankfully, as New Home Source reported, there are several ways in which you can spot a greenwasher.
- Look for hidden trade-offs. A product may claim a green benefit while leaving out the fact that their product creates other issues for the environment.
- Look for irrelevant claims. New Home Source wrote that some products claim to be chlorofluorocarbon-free, even though CFC has been banned in manufacturing since 1987.
- Look for unsubstantiated claims. Many products make claims about a "green" feature, but never cite the source that substantiates that claim.
- Look for oxymorons. Products in traditionally un-green lines are now being advertised as "green". One example of this is "the most fuel-efficient sports utility vehicle." It might be more fuel-efficient than its competitors, but it's still not green by any stretch of the imagination.