The Scale of Greenwashing

posted by Robin Beck

I think the first time I ever heard the word ‘greenwashing’ was in the late ’80s or maybe early ’90s after I saw a flier from McDonald’s about how they didn’t use beef from the Amazon. I brought the flier home to show my mother, an environmentalist, because I was so proud to show her that even big giant companies were doing good things and that her work was really making a difference.

She looked at it for about three seconds and told me “that’s greenwashing.” She explained the word to me and although I was sad to see my evidence of the mainstream adoption of environmentalism debunked, I realized for the first time that in a lot of ways claiming to “go green” when you’re not can be worse than just doing bad stuff in the first place.

Well, I’ve obviously come a long way since then and you may have already seen one of our “Greenwash of the Week” posts.

You’d think I would be pretty aware of the scope and quantity of greenwashing out there. I thought I was too.

But this past weekend I did something I don’t often do: I watched cable news for a few hours non-stop. And I was, to put it mildly, surprised at just how much of the advertising was straight-up greenwashing.

Most of it was from industry front-groups. The oil and natural gas industry, Chevron, a major freight train operator called CSX, the coal industry, chemical producers, and a few more I didn’t write down.

If you get your news from, say, the news channels, you’d probably think that most of America’s biggest industries are spending most of their time trying to figure out how to protect the environment and make us all happier and safer.

I mean, that’s what their ads say. Not one ad touting anything like “gasoline, because you have to get to work” or “plastic, more convenient than reusing stuff.”

No, the message is always the same: in these ads the solution to the problems we face is to simply let the markets run their course, keep up our wasteful consumption, and trust that the companies who caused so many of these problems in the first place are working hard to develop and sell us wizz-bang technological solutions.

What scares me most, however, isn’t that their message is dishonest, or manipulative, or anything like that. What scares me is the scale of these campaigns.

I can’t help but think of the millions of young people out there who genuinely care about the future of this planet, like I did, see these ads, like I did, but whose parents aren’t environmental activists who know how to explain greenwashing to a ten year-old.

Look, these ads are slick, powerful, inspiring, and emotional. And they’re everywhere. I know that most folks don’t trust these companies and can see through the most flagrant claims, but I’m also pretty sure that some of their messaging is getting through.

My guess is that’s exactly their strategy: just overwhelm us with the message and hope that some tiny part of it sticks. Like, maybe, “clean coal” or “oil is the future” or even just “technology is the answer.”

So how to we stop them? I’m not sure I have the whole answer to that, but I think it has a lot to do with building a culture of skepticism towards their claims and a much broader and deeper awareness about what real solutions look like.

Anyone else have ideas?