What’s Greenwashing?

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Greenwashing is when companies falsely claim environmental responsibility to appeal to consumers’ growing concern for sustainability. It can be difficult for consumers to distinguish between truthful advertising and greenwashing, but clues such as donation records and consistency can help. Many companies in traditionally environmentally controversial industries have launched greenwashing campaigns, making it difficult for truly ethical companies.

Greenwashing is a marketing technique in which a company falsely claims environmental responsibility. As more consumers are concerned about sustainability and the environment, a growing number of companies have come forward, saying they are improving their environmental practices and reforming their industries. While that may certainly be true in some cases, many of the environmental stewardship claims made by companies are actually false, or at the very least grossly misleading.

The term is a portmanteau of “whitewashing,” meaning to cover up wrongdoing, and “green,” a common term used to refer to environmentally friendly practices. The green movement includes sources of food, buildings, energy and everything in between, and it also represents a substantial source of potential income. An increasing number of citizens, especially in the First World, are willing to pay a premium for “green” products. In addition to environmentally conscious companies that are truly trying to do business ethically, a number of companies are launching extensive greenwashing campaigns detailing all the ways they are environmentally responsible. For unwary consumers, glossy greenwashing advertisements can suggest that the company is reputable and responsible.

Many companies in traditionally environmentally controversial industries have launched greenwashing campaigns. Numerous oil and automobile companies, for example, have glossy advertisements in major magazines touting their environmental programs. Other companies use misleading labels on their synthetic turf products or organizations to back up their claims of environmentally friendly business practices. Many greenwashing campaigns are nothing more than a highly deceptive marketing technique. This makes it doubly difficult for companies that are actually trying to do business ethically, as it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish between greenwashing and truthful advertising.

Several things can be used as clues for consumers to detect a greenwashing campaign. The first thing to do is follow the company’s money and card traces. Consumers should search donation records, for example, by seeing what kind of organizations the company donates to and where it belongs. This can also uncover astroturfing organizations and can provide a more complete picture of the company’s business ethics. Consumers should also look for information that isn’t discussed in the greenwashing campaign, such as that company’s factory pollution statistics.

Another important clue is consistency. Many companies announce a new environmental program with fanfare and then quietly cut funding. Consumers remember the ads touting the program, but they don’t check whether or not the company followed through. Additionally, consumers should look into the company’s practices overseas, especially in nations where environmental laws are lax. If the companies’ claims of sound environmental practices aren’t the case overseas, the company is probably greenwashing.

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