Who's the Biggest Greenwasher of Them All?

Two Steps Forward

Who's the Biggest Greenwasher of Them All?

"We're doing everything we can to help the environment. We are reexamining how we operate and are working hard every day to reduce our impacts. We are committed to making the world a better place for our children's grandchildren and beyond. We believe that everyone must do their part to address the serious environmental challenges we face."

If you read or heard a statement like this from a big company -- in, say, an advertisement, conference presentation, or annual report -- I'm guessing you'd be skeptical at best. You'd want to look beyond those broad, aspirational statements to see what, exactly, that company is doing and how much it was walking its talk. If you learned that the sum total of that company's actions were merely a few token gestures -- recycling copy paper and cardboard boxes, for example, or swapping out inefficient light bulbs -- you'd be anything from disappointed to angry. You might accuse the company of greenwash. As you should.

I'm going to step out on a limb and suggest that for all the sound and fury over deceptive, disingenuous corporations seeking to falsely create a green image, that the biggest offenders of greenwash aren't companies. And they're not politicians, the mainstream media, green marketing firms, or environmental groups.

The biggest greenwashers are consumers.

Consider the statements at the top of this page, a compilation of common company proclamations. What if these statements were uttered not by a company, but by your neighbor, a friend or relative -- or you? Would they be believable? How much substance would there be to back them up? Could you honestly say you are reexamining how you operate every day and are working to make changes, and that you are doing better this year than last?

I'm guessing not. And for all the eco-aware people I know -- friends, colleagues, and many others -- I don't know many who can.

Of course, most of us don't overtly make such boastful statements. But we do so covertly via anonymous polls and surveys in which high percentages of consumers make boastful claims -- saying they regularly seek out green products, recycle and compost at home, are more energy conscious in their purchasing decisions, switch brands in favor of greener ones, take public transportation whenever possible, invest their money with so-called responsible funds and companies, and otherwise take action on behalf of the planet.

As I've often pointed out -- and as even casual students of green marketing know -- reality looks nothing like this. Shoppers overwhelmingly buy what they want, most likely the same things they've always bought, perhaps with an exception or two. Except during brief periods of high fuel prices, they drive what they've always driven with little regard for alternatives. Despite 20 years of green consumer surveys suggesting otherwise, people haven't changed their shopping habits much.

So, are consumers greenwashers?

In pondering this question for the past several months, I looked at what various people mean when they use the word "greenwash." After all, there's no legal definition; "greenwash," like "green" itself, is largely a matter of perception. Here are two reasonable definitions I found:

"A false or misleading picture of environmental friendliness used to conceal or obscure damaging activities." (Source: Wikitonary) "The practice of giving a false green or a false sustainable image." (Source: SustainabilityWorks)

Greenwashing was described by others as "dissemination of misleading or false information" and "the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue."

By these definitions, most consumers are greenwashers extraordinaire. For more than two decades, they've said one thing and done another, making outsized claims about their environmental commitments -- and the actions they take where they live, work, and play -- with little evidence to back up those claims. They seem to find no qualms in painting "a false and misleading picture of environmental friendliness."

If consumers were a corporation, we'd be boycotting them.

I'm not letting companies off the hook here. There are many, many instances of firms large and small that have been less than forthcoming with their environmental achievements and green marketing claims. Some of their transgressions are merely annoying -- vague or unverifiable product claims such as being "eco-friendly" or "all-natural." Some green claims are decidedly overblown, such as those by purveyors of rayon clothing masquerading as bamboo; they got their hands slapped by the Federal Trade Commission.

Other transgressions are far more serious -- I'm thinking about a certain oil company who, for the better part of a decade, made audacious representations about moving "Beyond Petroleum," despite the fact that the percentage of its revenue from things beyond petroleum (and natural gas) never exceeded 1 percent. That's not just greenwash. That's outright fraud.

But as I've argued in the past, many activist cries of corporate marketing malfeasance (and of alleged green marketing "sins") tend to be overblown, headline-grabbing sensationalism. To the contrary, nearly every large corporation, and many smaller ones, have instituted a range of programs to reduce or eliminate wasteful, polluting, and toxic practices. Many of their goals are bold -- to achieve zero waste, closed-loop manufacturing, Cradle-to-Cradle products, or carbon-neutral operations. None of these companies is perfect, of course -- far from it -- but their imperfections are a far cry from nearly 20 years ago, when the term "greenwash" first came into use, referring to companies that "embraced the environment as their cause and co-opted the terminology ... while little changed in practice," according to the 1992 Greenpeace Book of Greenwash. These days, companies are changing for the better, and continuing their progress year over year.

Can the same be said for consumers? How many can say that they are making substantive changes in their daily lives? How many are doing more this year than last? How many have set bold goals about their environmental progress -- two, five, or ten years from now? Oh, right: Many of us have forsworn paper and plastic shopping bags for cloth ones; household recycling has become mainstream; people are buying more energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs and insulating their homes. A tiny handful even have solar panels or hybrid cars. But these are simple, relatively symbolic actions.

Compare this to the latest consumer research findings. "Eight in 10 consumers are interested in some type of green product," according to the latest LOHAS Consumer Trends Database from the Natural Marketing Institute. (What, exactly, does this mean? "Interested in some type of green product" is a tad vague.) Or Eco Pulse's finding that "68 percent of men said they were searching for greener products -- a 14 percent jump up from last year"? (What has led men to suddenly ramp up their green shopping during a recession?) Or Mintel's recent finding that more than one-third of consumers "say they would pay more for 'environmentally friendly' products." (Recession? What recession?)

So, who's fooling who? Are companies nefariously saying one thing and doing another, or is it consumers who are masquerading as eco-heroes while making only symbolic changes?

It's probably a little of each, but if I had to put money on which of the two was more likely to build a green economy, I sure know where I'd place my bet.