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.