Greenwashing: Have Your Plastic Bottled Water And Drink It, Too.
Greenwashing, friends. There you have it. Or, as The Tenth Edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “green*wash: (n) Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Think of a whitewash — or brainwash, or hogwash — intended for green purposes.
It’s not black and white, but something of a gray area, that has some greenies seeing red, and some companies green with envy that they didn’t think of it first. Okay, we’ll stop it with the purple prose.
Greenwashing, As In…
Examples abound. And frankly, it’s not surprising they would: Business exists to give people what they think they want. And they want green.
Two years ago the Web site Environmental Leader published findings of a survey commissioned by Green Seal and EnviroMedia Social Marketing, saying four out of five people “say they are still buying green products and services today.”
Bear in mind that self-designated “green” products are generally more expensive than their standard counterparts, and that 2009 was in this Great Recession we seem to be stuck in, and you see the commitment of a sizable majority of the American purchasing public to patronize environmentally conscious products and companies.
So naturally — sorry — companies are going to want to appear green, if not actually greenify their production, procedures or products. We weren’t around during World War II, despite the fact that our children seem to think we’ve been around since the Pleistocene, but we imagine companies rushed to be seen as “supporting the war effort” in any way possible, wrapping themselves in the flag, for much the same reason companies are greenwashing today: It’s what their customers want.
Poland Spring’s Eco-Shape Bottle
Case in point: There are few things that grate on environmentalists more than plastic water bottles. Especially when they see hundreds, thousands of them strewn around the grounds of a concert staged to promote Earth Day, but we digress. Yet in 2008 Poland Spring had the temerity to introduce an “ Eco-Shape bottle.” What made the plastic bottle eco-friendly? Why, it uses 30 percent less plastic and 30 percent less paper for the label than their old bottles did. Poland Spring can therefore be congratulated for a rare business twofer: Cutting productions costs and boosting their green street cred in one stroke.
Most greenies weren’t fooled, realizing that marketing a plastic bottle with less plastic as “eco-friendly” is sort of like a thief calling himself “victim-friendly” by stealing 30 percent less money.
What Drives Greenwashing: The Green Fig Leaves
But here’s the crucial insight that drives greenwashing: People are driven by conflicting desires. Not necessarily good vs. bad, but good vs. better. They want it both ways.
They want the convenience of water in plastic bottles they can throw away after use, and they want to feel good about themselves as doing their bit to save the environment. Clearly they can’t have both. Or can they? Hey lookit this, Martha, here’s a plastic bottle that’s eco-friendly! Problem solved! We’ll take four bottles, please.
This, my friends, is what’s known as a “fig leaf.” A rationale. An equivocation. A way to have your cake and eat it too. A way to tamp down your conscience, to toss it a bone to shut it up while you go on enjoying what you want to enjoy in a clear conscience.
And companies are happy to provide it. Businesses understand that what people want is an excuse to do what they want to do anyway. They know that the most ardent eco-activist gets hot and thirsty standing on the street corner passing out Greenpeace literature, asking passersby to sign a petition or holding up a sign, and would like a nice cool drink of water in a light, easy container.
The goal of greenwashing, then, as business sees it, is to provide cover for aforesaid ardent eco-activist to buy what she really wants — a plastic bottle of water from the 7-Eleven on the corner across the street. Presto — the “eco-friendly bottle.” The eco-activist gets her green drink of water, the company gets her green dollars.
Eco-Friendly Plastic Bottles = Low Tar Cigarettes
It’s an old concept. Remember “low tar and nicotine” cigarettes? You really wanted a smoke and really wanted to be healthy. Incompatible goals — or are they? How about smoking… a healthier cigarette! The lung-friendly smoke. We’ll take four packs, please.
You want a beer, but you don’t want all the calories or alcohol that come with it. Bartender, four Bud Lights please. The liver-friendly beer.
Raise the stakes a bit. Cars. You want a car, they’re nice, convenient, useful things to have. You also want to do your bit to save the earth and reduce global warming. Welcome to the Prius, the Chevy Volt. Never mind that the electricity needed for the Volt is most likely produced by a coal-fired plant, it’s been greenwashed to let buyers tell themselves they’re driving an eco-friendly car. They get the convenience of driving a car along with an assuaged conscience. Win-win.
Indulgences, Atonement and a $38.8 Million Wind Farm Investment
For some businesses not traditionally associated with environmentalism, such as energy producers, greenwashing was a godsend, a way to purchase some indulgences to pay for their sins in the eyes of green advocates, an altar on which to make sacrifices to atone for their wayward ways.
Sometimes even genuine efforts at greenifying operations are met with derisive catcalls of “greenwashing!” Remember almost exactly a year ago, July 2010, when Reuters reported that Google would buy wind power from NextEra Energy for the next 20 years to power data centers?
Earlier in 2010 Google had invested $38.8 million in two wind farms in North Dakota that could generate enough energy to power more than 55,000 homes, Reuters said. Urs Hoelzle, Google’s senior vice president of operations, blogged on Google’s website that incorporating “such a large amount of wind power into our portfolio is tricky, but this power is enough to supply several data centers.”
You’d think that would please the greenie activists. You’d be wrong. It was sneered at as sniveling greenwashing, and not particularly graceful at that. “Google’s paltry $39 million investment in a Wind Farm was puzzling as it really seemed to meet no goals,” wrote Green World Investor. “The investment would not lead to any significant advancement in Wind Technology nor was it big enough to lead to large production of Green Energy… Google’s pitiful investments in Green Energy sound more like Greenwashing rather than genuine commitment to a world of Clean Energy.”
That’s a bit harsh, considering the fact that Google isn’t actually obligated to do anything at all, and it’s not like wind power is the most economically feasible energy available. As greenwashing goes — let’s be honest, that’s what it was — it’s one of the more impressive efforts.
“The Textbook Definition of Greenwashing”
There are significantly lamer efforts out there. In early 2010 industry observer Karlene Lukovitz wrote that Sara Lee was caught greenwashing in its EarthGrains campaign, claiming “Eco-Grain” as a flour ingredient, with the tagline, “The Plot to Save the Earth, One Field at a Time.”
It turns out that “Eco-Grain wheat” for flour was Sara Lee supplier Horizon Milling working with Idaho-based family farmers “to use precision agriculture techniques such as satellite imagery and soil sampling, which enable farmers to use fertilizer only where it’s needed and reduce energy use and emissions while increasing the wheat yield,” Lukovitz said, adding that such wheat accounted for no more than 20 percent of Sara Lee’s total usage.
That’s pretty lame. Worse still is GM’s quasi-apocryphal idea, in 2009, to greenify by… turning green. Literally. MSNBC reported that the company footled with the idea of simply coloring its iconic blue square GM logo green. Treehugger’s Michael Graham Richard was almost grudgingly admiring of the brass of the idea: “I don’t think it would be possible to change GM in a more superficial way than that. It would almost be the textbook definition of greenwashing.”
It must be said that GM’s CEO Fritz Henderson denied contemplating such a move, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time MSNBC got something backasswards — who can forget Chris Matthews telling us the Panama Canal is in Egypt, or the ever-gullible Rachel Maddow falling for a rather transparent Sarah Palin hoax — but in fact Government Motors never did make the change.