A few months back, I was chatting with some colleagues and several times within our conversation, the phrase greenwashing, which is not unlike the term green sheen.
I thought it was a little bit funny to have really never heard anyone say greenwashing before, but then all of a sudden, I heard it repeatedly and by different people in totally separate conversations all over Northern Virginia. It is sort of like when you buy a new car- say, a black Civic- and then once you get on the highway- you discover that you’re surrounded by black Civics- and in the parking lot, you have to hit the panic button to find your car in the sea of similar cars. Greenwashing is something that a consumer can get lost in, just like a sea of similar cars. This made me think: what sets the truly green apart from the products which have been greenwashed or have had a bit of that green sheen?
It helps to know what we’re even talking about here… so, a trip to ye old internet brought me to the ever knowledgeable Wikipedia. This standard claims that greenwashing is the practice by which companies make false representations about how environmentally friendly their product or services are. They want to make their product appear to be a part of the green movement, when in fact, they aren’t at all a part of the movement. Sometimes, greenwashing can be a complete and total manipulation of the consumer to believe something that is entirely false; disappointing- yet true. Here is a bit of trivia for you: apparently back in the late eighties, a man named Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in an essay debunking the supposed environmentally friendliness of hotel chains who decided to post signs in their rooms claiming that they would only wash your sheets or towels if you requested it, not on a daily basis, as we as the American Consumer had grown accustomed. You’ve seen the signs in hotel rooms, and you’ve probably seen the “signs” in the recent products you’ve picked up on the shelves at the store, or even heard about it when talking about a newly constructed home.
TerraChoice, a national marketing research company recently came out with their 3rd annual greenwashing report aptly named Sins of Greenwashing. Their comprehensive report takes a look at the consumer and retailers viewpoints as to how greenwashing is affecting the market. They take a look at whether greenwashing is truly a bad thing, or if it is, in fact, a positive thing. In this years’ edition of the report they state: “scrutiny of environmental claims will be positive only as long as it manages to discourage greenwashing while simultaneously encouraging more and more green product innovation and commercialization.” The way that TerraChoice sees it, greenwashing may be driving the consumer as well as the retailer to take a deeper look at environmental action and how it affects them.
At the 2010 DC Greenfestival, I wondered the aisles looking at all of the new and exciting products that are eco-labeled as “green” or “eco-friendly” and I happened to stop at a booth that was petitioning to have eco-labeling more closely scrutinized. They had huge mock ups of the shampoos and health/beauty products I have long since known as being “green” or holistically created, and as I took a closer look, I saw that their mock ups noted how they were not really green or healthy products at all. It was an interesting eye-opener to see how these companies had fallen into one of the Sins of Greenwashing; #7, in fact. The Sin of False labeling. This makes you think about the products you have been buying as eco-friendly, which very well might not be. What TerraChoice says; however, is that as consumers are more aware of their impacts on the environment and as proper labeling is administered through third party certifications, greenwashing can potentially be a good thing. Greenwashing is seen as a good thing because it drives up motivation of retailers to create products which are more environmentally friendly and in an honest way. This, in essence, drives up consumer awareness and product quality at the same time. So, greenwashing is a good thing? What do you think?