This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.
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The term greenwashing is generally heard when one person or organizations accuses another of greenwashing a product or practice.
Greenwashing is when a company disingenuously promotes a product as “green” or as an more environmentally-friendly option.
The Wikipedia entry on greenwashing gives the following origin story for the term:
“Greenwashing was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay reagrdign the hotel industry’s practice of placing green placards in each room, promoting the reuse of guest towels, ostensibly to ‘save the environment’. Westerveld noted that, in most cases, little or no effort toward waste recycling was being implemented by these institutions…Westerveld opined that the actual objective of this ‘green campaign’ on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, increased profit.”
Generally, a product, practice, or promotion is labeled as “greenwashing” when it seems that there has been significant effort or resources devoted to labeling something green, and much less effort devoted to looking at the underlying metrics in terms of environmental impact and actually improving environmental performance.
As an example, yesterday I passed a sign outside the local Walgreens advocating that I “save a tree by signing up for online promotions”. Another example is that many aerosol product labels still say “CFC-free” even though CFCs have been banned since before I was born.
Several years ago, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing put out a list of “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, which has now been expanded to seven.
The seven sins of greenwashing are:
1 – Sin of the hidden trade-off
2 – Sin of no proof
3 – Sin of vagueness
4 – Sin of worshipping false labels
5 – Sin of irrelevance
6 – Sin of lesser of two evils
7 – Sin of fibbing
TerraChoice has a comprehensive (and fun!) site covering the sins. The site also includes links to recent TerraChoice reports on greenwashing.
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From my latest visit to the store (one of the MANY examples of greenwashing on the shelf):
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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.