|This is part of the Center for Media & Democracy’s climate change project.|
Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.
The U.S.-based watchdog group CorpWatch defines greenwash as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.” This definition was shaped by by the group’s focus on corporate behavior and the rise of corporate green advertising at the time. However, governments, political candidates, trade associations and non-government organizations have also been accused of greenwashing. 
The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Derivatives greenwashing (n). Origin from green on the pattern of whitewash.” 
In 2008 the environmental group Greenpeace launched a website Stop Greenwash to “confront deceptive greenwashing campaigns, engage companies in debate, and give consumers and activists and lawmakers the information and tools they need to … hold corporations accountable for the impacts their core business decisions and investments are having on our planet.” 
The allure of greenwashing
Organizations are attracted to engage in greenwashing for a wide range of reasons including:
- attempting to divert the attention of regulators and deflating pressure for regulatory change;
- seeking to persuade critics, such as non-government organisations, that they are both well-intentioned and have changed their ways;
- seeking to expand market share at the expense of those rivals not involved in greenwashing; this is especially attractive if little or no additional expenditure is required to change performance; alternatively, a company can engage in greenwashing in an attempt to narrow the perceived ‘green’ advantage of a rival;
- reducing staff turnover and making it easier to attract staff in the first place;
- making the company seem attractive for potential investors, especially those interested in ethical investment or socially responsive investment.
Rough rules of thumb for detecting greenwash
Big budget greenwash campaigns are designed to defuse scepticism of journalists, politicians and activists. Some rough rules of thumb for testing whether the claims made by a company, government or NGO stack up are:
- Follow the Money Trail: many companies are donors to political parties, think tanks and other groups in the community. Few companies actually disclose in their annual reports exactly whom they are donating to, even though it is shareholders money. Ask about all their donations, not just those they boast about in glossy documents such as the corporate social responsibility reports.
- Follow the membership trail: Many companies boast about the virtues of their environmental policy and performance but hide their anti-environmental activism behind the banner of an industry association to which they belong. Find out what industry association companies are members of and check and see what their policies are. Assume that all individual companies support the trade associations policy positions until such time as they publicly state that they don’t agree with them or they resign. (See the article on the third party technique, a central plank in most PR campaigns).
- Follow the paper trail: Most companies, or their trade associations, will make submissions to government and other inquiries on a wide range of issues. Often these submissions will be posted to a website. They will also send lots of letters to politicians and government agencies, which can be accessed by Freedom of Information Act searches. Ask about submissions made by the company and their lobbying on issues you are interested in. You will probably discover that instead of lobbying for tougher environmental standards, they are busy trying to weaken the ones that exist.
- Look for skeletons in the company’s closet: Every company has major problems that it doesn’t want the public and regulators to know about. Some companies include information in the annual reports about problems that have been in the news in the last year. More often, there will have been problems, occasionally reported in the media, which they don’t want to tell shareholders about. Check for information on the company with watchdog groups and in the media and compare that with what they disclose.
- Test for access to information: Many companies will make lofty claims about their commitment to transparency and providing information to ‘stakeholders’. Don’t just take them at their word. In their reports they will probably refer to environmental impact statements, reviews, audits, monitoring data and other information. If it relates to an issue you are interested in, ask to see it. And remember that ‘commercially confidential’ is just corporate speak for ‘no’.
- Test for international consistency: Most companies will operate to different standards in other countries. Check and see whether their operating standards and procedures are consistent or whether they opt for lower standards where they think they can get away with it.
- Check how they handle their critics: Some companies go to extraordinary lengths to try and silence their critics. This can involve everything from legal threats (see the article on SLAPPs) to funding and collaborating with police and military forces.
- Test for consistency over time: It is common for a company to launch a policy or initiative and then starve it of funds. Or a company will make promises when they are under public pressure but never implement them when the spotlight fades.
- Greenwashing Examples From Australia
- Global Greenwashing Examples
- Greenwashing Examples From Europe
- Greenwashing Examples From New Zealand
- Greenwashing Examples From Canada
- Greenwashing Examples From The United Kingdom
- Greenwashing Examples From The United States
- Miscellaneous Greenwashing Examples
- Greenwashing articles from PRWatch.org
Books & reports
- Kenny Bruno (with help from Jed Greer), The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash, Greenpeace, 1992. ASIN: B0006P4RQ2
- Kenny Bruno, “The Greenpeace Guide to Greenwash“, Greenpeace International, 1992. (Large PDF file). (This guide was written with assistance from Jed Greer.)
- [John Stauber]] & Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damned Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995.
- Jed Greer & Kenny Bruno, Greenwash and Corporate Environmentalism, Third World Network & The Apex Press, Penang, Malaysia and New York, US, February 1997. ISBN-10: 0945257775 ISBN-13: 978-0945257776996.
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- E. Bruce Harrison, PR ‘father’ of greenwashing.
- EnviroMedia Social Marketing
- EnviroMedia’s Greenwashing Index
- Green Marketing
- Fair trade
- Frank Luntz
- National Advertising Division, NAD
- Saatchi & Saatchi S
- Timberlands Greenwashing: Building Bridges and Splitting Greens
- World Business Council for Sustainable Development
- The Greenwashing Blog (www.thegreenwashingblog.com): A blog dedicated to identifying greenwashing deceptions.
- The Unsuitablog (www.unsuitablog.com): A Web site dedicated to exposing greenwashing and other environmental hypocrisy.
- http://www.StopGreenwash.org launched by Greenpeace in 2008.
- Bob Burton, “A Beginner’s Guide To Greenwash“, Mining Monitor, July 2000, page 8.
- Josh Richman, Greenwashing On Trial, Mother Jones, February 23, 2001.
- Joshua Karliner, “A Brief History of Greenwash”, CorpWatch, March 22, 2001.
- “Greenwash Fact Sheet“, CorpWatch, March 22nd, 2001.
- John Stauber, “Flack Attack re: E. Bruce Harrison“, PR Watch, Volume 8, No. 3, Third Quarter 2001.
- John Stauber, “Endangered Wildlife Friends are Here!“, PRWatch, Third Quarter, 2001. (This an article about BP & National Wildlife Federation).
- Andy Rowell, “Corporations “Get Engaged” to the Environmental Movement“, PRWatch, Third Quarter, 2001.
- Walter Lamb, “Keep America Beautiful: Grassroots Non-Profit or Tobacco Front Group?“, PRWatch, ThirdQuarter, 2001.
- Jennifer 8. Lee, “A Call for Softer, Greener Language,” New York Times, March 2, 2003.
- Geoffrey Johnson, “‘Greenwashing’ Leaves a Stain of Distortion“, Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2004.
- Rodney North, “On Fair Trade ‘figleafs’“, Wedge Co-Op Newsletter, February/March 2006.
- Wendy Melillo and Steve Miller, “Companies Find It’s Not Easy Marketing Green“, BrandWeek, July 24, 2006
- Chris MacDonald and Melissa Whellams, “What is Greenwashing, and Why is it a Problem?“, undated, accessed November 2006, off the Business Ethics website.
- E. Bruce Harrison, “The Drying of Greenwash“, O’Dyers PR Daily, April 19, 2007 (Sub req’d).
- Mike Tierney, “‘Green’ industry on rise: Smelling acceptance and profits, companies are eager to tout how environmentally friendly they are,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Georgia), May 13, 2007.
- Curtis Brinard, “The best source of environmental stories that you’ve never heard of“, Columbia Journalism Review, May 21, 2007.
- Phil Mattera, “Is Big Business Buying Out the Environmental Movement?“, Alternet, June 5, 2007.
- PRWatch.org, “WWF Greenwashes Coca-Cola“, June 5, 2007.
- “It’s Easy Being Green“, ‘On the Media’, National Public Radio, July 6, 2007.
- Editorial, Smooth Facade: Greenwash Guru Burson Marsteller and the Biotech Industry, The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 3, May/June 1998.
- Alexandra Bruell, “Media talks ‘green’“, PR Week, August 16, 2007.
- Greenwashed, Eliminating the spin
- Greenwashing Index, sponsored by EnviroMedia, is an “online interactive forum that allows consumers to evaluate real advertisements making environmental claims” (accessed January 26, 2008).
- Phil Mattera, “Is Corporate Greenwashing Headed for a Fall?”, AlterNet, February 12, 2008.
- Vince Meserko, “PR Greenwashing and Classroom Whitewashing,” Media & the Environment blog, March 25, 2008.
- Stan Cox, “Green as a Blackjack Table: The Political Economics of Greenwashing“, Counterpunch, April 22, 2008.