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Published July 15, 2008 12:11 PM

Is Greenwashing Good?

by Shannon Arvizu

Is greenwashing really a disinformation campaign by corporations trying to win over the conscious consumer? Or is it just part of the "growing pains" of becoming a sustainable company? Joel Makower, of Greenbiz.com, thinks it's the latter. He writes.

"The rise of green marketing claims is a testament to how quickly being seen as green has become of importance to companies. Isn't that what all of us wanted to see happen?"

Maybe...but maybe not.

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Makower hints that greenwashing may eventually fade as corporations integrate environmental considerations more fully. It could be, however, that greenwashing is symptomatic of a larger corporate contradiction between economic growth and ecological integrity.

Any green is good green. Makower argues that any green marketing is good since it shows that companies are at least starting along the sustainability path. While it is important for consumers to practice scrutiny when encountering green labels, Makower sees reason to cut companies some slack and let them work out the kinks of telling a credible green storyline.

He cites a study done by TerraChoice entitled, "The Six Sins of Greenwashing," to show that most greenwashing claims are not "patently false." Rather, most cases involve "sloppy" or "unsubstantiated" claims. Companies are not intentionally trying to manipulate the consumer. It's just that they don't know how to communicate their environmental endeavors effectively to consumers. Better claims = less greenwashing, so the argument goes.

"Sloppy" or "unsubstantiated" claims (while maybe not "patently false") are not unintentional. When looking at the wide variety of corporate practices over history, we find that current greenwashing attempts are part of standard operational procedure. Corporations have been using various tactics to maintain societal legitimacy while engaging in otherwise illegitimate practices since their inception.

In terms of corporate environmental history, most claims in the past have centered on making amends for ecological damage (end-of-pipe pollution). It is only recently that corporations are being pressured to incorporate ecological principles in product service/design and operations (preventative solutions). The rise of the green consumer, the green investor, green certification programs, industry green associations, and green business "watchdog" organizations have each contributed to a corporate desire to portray a "green streak" within the organization.

This is, obviously, easier said than done. Take, for example, GM's "Gas Friendly to Gas Free" campaign. Greenpeace's greenwashing site states, "Despite GM's green rhetoric, the company is still the leading producer of gas-guzzlers and works behind the scenes to undermine fuel economy and emission standards." Thus, it is relatively convenient for marketing departments to construct a green storyline, regardless of the company's actual practices. But isn't something better than nothing?

The underlying critique is not about whether companies are "doing enough" or "trying hard enough." It is about the co-optation of the sustainability discourse to further standard corporate practices that lead to continued ecological damage. It calls into question whether, in fact, businesses can pursue economic growth without concurrently adding environmental pressure. The critique also calls upon corporations to be honest about their overall impact.

So, what would an honest green claim look like? Well, the plain and simple truth is that almost any green claim can be debunked because, inevitably, business operations do have at least some kind of environmental impact. Almost any green claim can be substantiated to a certain degree as well, depending on how one defines "environmental improvement."

Makower's main argument is that at least green is now part of the marketing lingo. I would add, however, that green claims should always be read with healthy skepticism. Rather than cut companies some "slack" for trying, we need to apply more pressure to get companies to try harder, on a larger-scale, and on a faster timetable than ever before to back up their green claims.

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