On the heels of the hottest year ever recorded in human history, climate change is at the top of many people’s minds. You may have heard a lot of terms thrown around—heat pumps, carbon taxes, electric vehicles—but perhaps none is more important to understand as a consumer, and a citizen, than greenwashing.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What is greenwashing?
According to Janet Wesselius, a professor of philosophy of science and environmental theory at the University of Alberta, greenwashing is “marketing or advertising [that] describes a product or a practice as fundamentally and particularly good for the environment, when in fact, in the most egregious cases, it’s not good for the environment at all.”
“Greenwashing, of course, is related to the term ‘white washing,’ which means to cover up something that’s dirty,” Wesselius told VICE News, adding that the term was coined in 1986 by ecologist Jay Westerveld, who examined how the hotel industry was making inflated claims about its environmental record.
Westerveld’s interest in greenwashing was piqued by materials in hotel rooms that encouraged guests to be mindful of their towel usage. It’s a common move identified by greenwashing experts VICE News spoke to: passing the buck of environmental responsibility on to the consumer.
Since that time, Wesselius says that greenwashing has only gotten worse, and she pins a lot of the blame on the architecture of the internet and the increased dissemination of misinformation online.
“With the internet, there’s just too much information, and we don’t have the same checks and balances we used to,” Wesselius says.
“It used to be that a newspaper would be very careful about what it published because it didn’t want to be caught publishing something false. Well, clearly, that’s not true anymore. I mean, it’s still true for some newspapers. But… you can find anything you want on the internet.”
What does greenwashing look like?
Ziya Tong, a science journalist and board member for the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), told VICE News that greenwashing comes in many different forms. You’ve probably seen some of the most common ones in the wild without even realizing it.
Tong says that one of the most popular forms of greenwashing is false labeling, like when brands mark a material as “100% biodegradable,” but fail to explain exactly how long that process will take (a lot of research suggests plastics will practically never degrade).
“Companies—not just companies but governments, too—prey on the consumer’s lack of knowledge and take advantage of relaxed regulations around what they can legally claim to be true,” Tong says, pointing out that the vast majority of greenwashing relies on “information gaps” to both trick the public into feeling good and give companies a pass about whatever not-actually-green action they’re taking.
Another way greenwashing crops up is through technological future-faking, what Tong describes as “kicking the can down the road” through the promotion of unproven technologies like carbon capture devices, which those in the climate change denial movement have offered up as a panacea to the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.
Both Tong and Wesselius say the biggest offenders in recent history have been fossil fuel companies. In particular, they point to examples such as British Petroleum’s (BP) attempt to greenwash its record after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill by running ads about how dedicated the company was to green energy initiatives. Greenpeace has since analyzed BP’s spending and found only a tiny fraction was put toward developing renewable energy technology.
Is greenwashing ever a good thing?
Some people argue that greenwashing is actually a sign of good things to come. John Tobin, a tropical ecologist, lawyer and business professor at Cornell University, says that complaints about greenwashing fail to account for the fact that the trend is indicative of increased environmental pressure on public and private entities.
“If somebody says to me, ‘Oh, look at this company or organization, they’re greenwashing,’ my reaction is ‘Oh, awesome,’” Tobin says.
“Why awesome? It’s very, very simple. The fact that companies care enough about these issues, that they’re trying to burnish their reputations and appear green is already huge progress over where business was not too long ago.”
According to Tobin, greenwashing is a sign that concern for the climate that has become mainstream, and efforts to go genuinely green will naturally follow.
Tobin says that it “isn’t a surprise” that some companies greenwash, as businesses are profit-driven and will tend to prioritize profits over altruism, but argues that the “vast majority” of businesses making such claims adhere to ethical practices in regards to the environment.
“I completely disagree,” Tong says of Tobin’s claim that greenwashing is an indicator of business moving in the right direction. That’s going too easy on businesses and governments at a time when the world needs to be aggressive on climate change.
“We’ve seen decades of greenwashing by big oil and look where it’s gotten us. Greenwashing exists purely to enrich the entity pushing the false or misleading claims. Full stop.”
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