What do these actions have in common:
- An oil company executive (usually just after a spill) discusses his commitment to the environment
- A politician or celebrity tells us to conserve, then departs in a private jet
- A leaf or some other symbol is added to a label for a product otherwise environmentally unremarkable
The answer is that all are arguably examples of “greenwashing,” that is painting over glaring missteps or even standard practices with the sheen of sustainability.
It’s not always easy to spot. Sometimes you have to dig into the practices of a company to be sure. For example, a company that donates a percentage of profits to a wildlife fund might be great—or they might be destroying wide swaths of wildlife habitat in the process. Their claim is easy to see; their practices aren’t nearly as visible.
So how do you spot it? The problem has become pervasive enough, that one organization has devoted significant energy to educate on the subject. A partnership between EnviroMedia Social Marketing & the University of Oregon documents the regular abuse of environmental language by companies who are anything but friendly to sustainable practices. They suggest looking for ads with misleading words, visuals or graphics. Listen for claims that are vague or can’t really be proven. They may also just be out of proportion to the impact they actually have.
All of those things, though, require investigation, and that takes time. So, if you’re not a university, you have to go with your gut. Simple awareness makes a huge difference; get started, and you will find yourself evaluating such materials more often, and conclude that a lot of the environmental talk we see from companies, politicians, celebrities, is just that: talk, with little action to back it up.
What you do then varies with the “greenwasher” in question. You can stop buying a product of course, skip a particular celebrity’s next album or film, vote for another candidate. But perhaps a better approach is to actually let them know what you’re thinking. Tell that corporation that you don’t believe them; that you’d like to see them help the environment by making their product better, not just donating to the very cause they’ve harmed. Celebrities are easier to reach than ever via social media. And politicians are the most susceptible of all.
Take action, too, to demonstrate what you really want more than any objection can. Take action to support the organizations you believe in and to promote the products that deliver real sustainability. Paper Water Bottle wants to be just such an organization, with products that, by their very nature, demonstrate the kind of environmental responsibility that greenwashers long to paint their wares with. Keep your eyes and ears open; we don’t need more lip service. What we need is A Refreshing Alternative™.