Apr 9, 2007

The Greenwasher in All of Us

With the greening of business moving swiftly into the mainstream, there's been a renewed focus on greenwashing -- "what corporations do when they try to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they really are,"  there are plenty of examples where companies have attempted to apply a green sheen to their far-from-perfect environmental records.  And while it's generally good that we maintain high standards for companies' seeking to claim environmental leadership, I can't help but ponder the hypocrisy of it all: how much more we expect of companies than of ourselves.

As we watch and read these stories and, perhaps, proffer some inner expression of support -- "Attaboy! Nail those bastards!" -- it may well be worth committing a split second or two to self-reflection: "Am I really doing all that I can to address the environmental problems that concern me most?" "Do I profess one thing and do another?" "Do my friends think I'm greener than I really am?" "Am I holding others to a higher standard than myself?"

"perhaps we need to acknowledge that there is, indeed, a little greenwasher in all of us." Read More By joelmakower

In the early 1990s, a handful of consumer-product companies were publicly spanked for their misleading green statements by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as well as a consortium of state attorneys general led by Minnesota's then-AG Hubert Humphrey III.

But the feds, and most state and local governments, have opted out of policing green claims. With good reason: There are few agreed-upon standards for being a green business. (This is not the case for green products, for which there are numerous -- some would say too many -- certification schemes.) True, the FTC in 1992 promulgated some Green Marketing Guidelines, which say, in effect, that if you want to call something "recyclable," it's not enough that the claim be technically true; average consumers must be able to actually recycle it in their community. But again, that's about products, not companies.
More recently, we the people have assumed the role of green police, determining who's naughty and nice from a green-marketing perspective. With the help of blogs, wikis, and good old fashioned protests and press releases, activist groups and self-styled experts are exercising their constitutional right to have a point of view on the topic -- and broadcast it far and wide.