Greenwashing is Only Getting Worse

Greenwashing is Only Getting Worse

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on senior writer Marc Gunther's blog, at, and is reprinted with permission.]

As companies step up their spending on green marketing, the confusion about what's truly green is getting worse.

For consumers, it's a challenge to cut through the clutter and decide whether to buy green products or support green companies.

Here's a guideline that is easy to follow:

We should absolutely not support green products from companies that use them to distract us from their larger negative environmental and social impacts. We need systemically green companies to address the challenges we face, not business-as-usual companies that hold up one green hand while hiding another toxic, CO2-emitting, waste-producing one behind their backs.

Two examples:

The Clorox company has done an impressive job of adding an earth-friendly luster to its image by acquiring Burt's Bees and launching the GreenWorks line of natural cleaners, which compete with Seventh Generation's cleaners. But despite its best efforts to renew its image, Clorox can't quite conceal the fact that at its core, it's still a big-time bleach company.


Take, for example, a series of ads that the bleach maker ran in early 2009 for its amped-to-the-max cleaner Formula 409. Clorox boasted that it had the desire and the capacity to develop an even brawnier product, Formula 410, "but it would be illegal in twelve states." The ad implied that if Clorox reformulated 409 just one more time, environmental regulators would ban the chemical-laced product. Perhaps Clorox's true color is not quite as green as it would like us to believe.

BP: Back to Petroleum?

For its part, BP used its "Beyond Petroleum" ad campaign to bolster its green credentials and highlight its comparatively modest spending on renewable energy. But the oil titan's high-profile rhetoric failed to square with its scarring of a vast wilderness landscape to extract crude from Canada's tar sands. Not surprisingly, a backlash soon followed. Activists described tar-sands oil extraction as "one of the world's greatest environmental crimes."

By the spring of 2009, the oil colossus announced that safety was now its "number one priority," which led some environmental groups to conclude that the company was retreating to its all-petrol roots. Inevitably, more than a few wags suggested that BP should henceforth stand for "Back to Petroleum."

To learn how consumers think about greenwashing, New Scientist magazine recently teamed up with EarthSense, which polled U.S. shoppers on their perceptions of the "greenness" of various companies, and with Trucost, which has compiled a quantitative assessment of companies' global environmental impact.

Together, they looked at whether consumer opinion matched reality. Unfortunately, it didn't. Take, for example the contrast between Fresh Del Monte Produce and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The research concludes that:

Both of these companies are seen by consumers as very environmentally friendly, yet they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum for environmental impact among our sample of food and beverage firms. Words like "fresh" and "green" immediately suggest a wholesome image. This is central to the identity of Green Mountain, a producer of whole-bean and ground coffee, including organically grown varieties. It is, indeed, the greenest of all our food and beverage companies, according to Trucost's analysis.

Fresh Del Monte Produce similarly projects a green image, but London-based Trucost's numbers paint a different picture. Growing fruit and vegetables involves heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, but the main issue again is water consumption, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the company's high environmental impact score.

That's quite a gap between belief and truth.

But fear not -- the age of transparency is coming, as I predict in The Responsibility Revolution, the new book I have written with Bill Breen. Analyses like New Scientist's will allow us all to make more responsible decisions, and companies will have a harder and harder time projecting green images while hiding bad habits in their back pockets.

Until it all becomes clear, companies are well advised to use the seven principles for corporate responsibility defined in The Responsibility Revolution, and consumers should make sure that they have the Good Guide loaded on their mobile devices before they go shopping.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user jennifer l.