Seven Sins of Greenwashing

Seven Sins of Greenwashing

I was walking the neighborhood with my daughter, keeping an eye out for houses painted green as she’s contemplating hues in that spectrum to update her house with a fresh coat. At some point the neurons working this assignment upstairs in the noggin crossed connections with my role as a senior advisor to the Stanford Social Media Lab (combating mis- and dis-information) and coagulated into a topic for this week’s lead article: greenwashing.

Such is the way a fragmented (demented?) mind sometimes works.

I’d wager we all probably have a pretty good idea of what greenwashing is; the trick is in recognizing it. Let’s have a quick look at this bad boy’s genesis.

While greenwashing operates as a highly specialized, sub-branded relative of today’s mis- and disinformation family tree, it predates these problems by a long shot – the term owes its life to the concept of whitewashing, which entered the lexicon circa 1591 in England. This refers to the practice of painting something old and dirty with cheap white paint to create the patina of being something it’s not.

Hundreds of years later, it did its chameleon thing and changed colors to better match its modern environment. Many point to 1953’s “Keep America Beautiful” advertising campaign as the first example of greenwashing. It’s a classic example of the magician’s misdirection, ginned up by the beverage industry to place consumer focus on recycling and littering and NOT on the responsibility of the companies creating the problem in the first place. Who, me? 🤷‍♂️

(You really do have to keep an eye out because big companies hire guys like me – probably much smarter – and give them beaucoup bucks to create these sleights of hand.)

Some refer to this practice as “green sheen,” which as a wordsmith I prefer, though it’s clear that greenwashing has won the day.

It’s an easy leap over subsequent decades to see how Keep America Beautiful begat the effort by Big Oil and the plastics industry to create a plastic recycling number system and perpetuate the fraud that plastics could and would be recycled.  Nothing to see here friends, just be good children and do your part – we’re all in this together!

There is no honor among thieves, people, so we must be vigilant – whether it’s encountering online deep fakes or corporate plastic fakes.

With that in mind, here’s a handy list from TerraChoice, a consulting division of UL, for what to be on the lookout:

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

  1. "Hidden Trade-off": a claim that a product is "green" based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other critical environmental issues.
  2. "No Proof": a claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible information or a reliable third-party certification.
  3. "Vagueness" is a poorly defined or broad claim that the consumer will likely misunderstand its meaning. "All-natural," for example, is not necessarily "green."
  4. "Worshipping False Labels": a claim that, through words or images, gives the impression of a third-party endorsement where none exists.
  5. "Irrelevance": a claim that may be truthful but unimportant or unhelpful to consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
  6. "Lesser of Two Evils": a claim that may be true within the product category, but risks distracting consumers from the more significant environmental impact of the category.
  7. "Fibbing": a claim that is simply false.
An example of greenwashing on a product I recently bought from Tough Outdoors.

Feeling up to snuff on greenwashing now?  Good!  You’ll also find a few interesting green-hued Quick Hits in this issue, including a few examples that will have you shaking your head.

Godspeed, friends. 


💬 Quote of the Week

“I'm worried about greenwashing. I think we should come down on it very, very hard, whether it's with criminal intent or actively deceptive.” John Elkington, who coined the ideas of Triple Bottom Line + People, Planet, Profit

💥 Quick Hits

The bytes and bits of greenwashing – Dig into the Digital Greenwashing Guide from our friends at mightybytes.

Hush puppies - Go green and then go quiet. Greenhushing – yes, it's a thing.

The wayback machine – We humans have been at it for a long time: the history of greenwashing.

Putting lipstick on the pig in Denmark 🐷 – Recycled pants, sustainable airline tickets, and climate-controlled sausagethe courts crack down on greenwashing.

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Thanks for spending time with us – and making it all the way to newsletter's end. We'll see you next week.

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