Greenwashing 101

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In 1999, “greenwash” entered the official lexicon of the English language through its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines greenwash as: “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”

Companies are the most common greenwashers, but other kinds of organizations, such as government agencies and trade groups, also produce greenwash.

In the marketplace, media and politics, greenwash serves several purposes, among them: fooling environmentally conscious consumers into buying environmentally destructive productst; generating positive press about a company’s environmental commitment; and resisting government environmental regulation through preemptive voluntary policies within an industry. Collectively, greenwash’s goals maintain the status quo of unsustainable consumption by deceiving and appeasing progressive parties.


Greenwash comes in a variety of strokes and shades. Here are illustrations from its three major categories:


The “SFI Certified Participant” label can be found on a range of paper and wood products. SFI stands for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program of the American Forest & Paper Association (AFPA). In 1994, the AFPA, an industry group, launched SFI to develop environmental certification standards for the products of the organization’s 132 member companies, which include notorious clearcutters such as Weyerhaeuser. The standards governing SFI’s participants are lenient and vague. For example, companies participating in the SFI program are required to use forestry chemicals such as herbicides “prudently.” Prudence is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the “ability to discern the most suitable, politic, or profitable course of action.” There is little evidence that the SFI’s definition stretches beyond merely the most profitable course.

Maybe that’s because there’s no one to show them any other way. Other sustainable paper and wood certifiers – notably the Forest Stewardship Council, which has stricter standards than SFI – are governed by social and environmental advocates and others independent of the forestry industry. In contrast, at least two-thirds of the SFI’s Board of Directors are industry representatives. The AFPA would deny that figure, but only because it bafflingly believes that logging companies and related trade associations fall outside the industry’s fold. When companies certify their own sustainability, that’s greenwash.


Click logo to see the ad.

A glossy Shell ad in National Geographic asks, “What do we really need in today’s energy-hungry world?” The answer, “More gardeners.” The ad copy describes Shell’s support of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, site of “some of the most spectacular banks of coral and sponges to be found in this part of the world.”

The cost of advertising in National Geographic runs in the six-figure range. Shell has been running the Flower Garden Banks ad in National Geographic and other publications, as well as on the web, for years. That puts Shell’s marketing tab for the ad into the millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars. Shell saves budget space for this pricey environmental program by limiting its direct funding for the sanctuary to $5,000 per year. When companies spend more on marketing their environmental programs than on funding them, that’s greenwash.

Public Relations

Welcome to Houston Earth Day 2004, sponsored by Marathon Oil. Back in 1997, Marathon worked behind closed doors with Governor George W. Bush to write voluntary emissions regulations for industrial plants. The regulations successfully protected out-of-date, dirty facilities from strict pollution standards proposed in the Texas legislature and supported by community groups and environmental organizations. Marathon’s collusion helped condemn Houston’s citizens to some of the worst air quality in the country. When companies use Earth Day to play host to people they poison, that’s greenwash.


1. Read between the labels. While some environmental labels including “Organic” and “Green Seal” are backed by strict independent certification, others are unregulated and can be used entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. This is typically true of labels that make vague claims such as “non-toxic” and “all natural.” That doesn’t mean that “non-toxic” laundry detergents aren’t safe, but they don’t have to be. Check out the Consumers Union’s Guide to Environmental Labels at for information on over 125 commonly used labels. You’ll find out which labels you can count on and which you shouldn’t necessarily trust. The Web site features comprehensive label Report Cards that you can print out and carry with you to the store or download onto a mobile electronic device.

2. Use common sense. When you see an oil company (BP) marketing itself as “Beyond Petroleum” even though you fill up regularly at its gas station down the street, you’ve got yourself a greenwasher. Same goes for a timber company (Weyerhaeuser) claiming to protect forests by planting trees, or a biotech company (Monsanto) publicizing its commitment to biodiversity while at the same time spreading monoculture plantations for genetically modified crops.

3. Don’t be fooled. The Green Life’s Don’t Be Fooled report, released annually on April Fool’s Day, profiles America’s ten worst greenwashers. The report also features general background and resources for further information about greenwash.

4. Subscribe (it’s free). Our Greenwasher of the Month e-newsletter exposes the latest misleading marketing and public relations campaigns. The e-newsletter sign-up box is in the top right corner of this website.


1. Join the crew. The Green Life’s Cleaning Crew is watchdog team of volunteers who identify cases of greenwash and post them to our Web site for the world to see. The Cleaning Crew is an important element of our Take Greenwash to the Cleaners campaign. The next time you spot a case of greenwash in a marketing or public relations, let us know what you spotted and where you spotted it. Be sure to give your own opinion on the case of greenwash you spotted! You’ll let other consumers know which products and companies are out to fool them, and show companies that you see through their greenwash. You can contact the Cleaning Crew at .

2. Purchase powerfully. Companies that produce greenwash calculate that they’ll spend less money on misleading marketing and public relations campaigns than they make by fooling consumers. You can flip the economic calculus of greenwash by leveraging your purchasing power. Simply refuse to buy from companies that you know are trying to fool you. Then run your own marketing campaign letting friends and family know that they should stay away too. If enough consumers punish greenwashers in this way, greenwash will account for more costs than benefits.

3. Talk back. Give your purchasing power a boost by letting greenwashers know exactly why you’re not buying their products. Few customers care to give companies their comments, so yours will be noticed. Don’t stop with the greenwashers themselves. Confront their enablers. Ask an environmentally-themed magazine (National Geographic) why it solicits advertising from the environment’s worst enemies. If you need to know who to call or where to send a letter so that your comments will make an impact, ask us at .


c. 1970

The public’s burgeoning environmental interest which leads to the inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970, also provokes industry into launching environmentally-themed marketing campaigns. Westinghouse, for example, runs ads describing nuclear power as “neat, clean, safe.” Former Madison Avenue executive Jerry Mander’s 1972 article, entitled “Ecopornography: One Year and Nearly a Billion Dollars Later, Advertising Owns Ecology,” documents how the oil, chemical, automobile and other industries are co-opting environmental imagery and messages through expensive marketing campaigns. While the term “greenwash” has not yet come into existence, the corporate phenomena it describes has arrived for good. It will expand steadily until exploding during the rapid popularization of environmental issues in the 1980s.


Chevron launches “People Do,” the longest-running, most infamous greenwash campaign in history. Print and television ads, portraying Chevron and its employees saving endangered species and engaging in other eco-friendly acts, are intended to green Chevron’s image for a “hostile audience” of “societally conscious” people. “People Do” does its job. Chevron’s sales spike 10 percent among consumers who see the ads, while a poll of Californians in the late 1980s reveals that Chevron is the oil company consumers trust most to protect the environment. Undoubtedly, “People Do”’s success inspires other companies to make bold green claims and leave consumers with the messy task of verifying them. As environmentalist David Brower comments, “People do. So do dogs. Then we have to clean up after them.”


The U.S. Chemical Manufacturers Association (since renamed as the American Chemistry Council) adopts Responsible Care, a voluntary program highlighting the environmental performance of the group’s members. The hollow “guiding principles” of Responsible Care pioneer industry’s preferred path towards self-regulation versus government regulation.


According to the trade publication O’Dwyer PR Services Report, the environment will be “the life-and-death PR battle of the 1990s.” Greenwashers seize the first major public relations opportunity of the decade, Earth Day 1990, the environmental holiday’s 20th anniversary. Monsanto, Texaco and British Petroleum are among the incongruous sponsors of Earth Day events. The consumer-oriented festivities of Earth Day 1990 occur at a time when one of four new products hitting the market in the U.S. is labeled “recyclable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable” or “ozone friendly.”


A study published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing finds that 58 percent of environmentally-themed ads feature at least one deceptive or misleading claim.


Negotiators gather in Rio for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Earth Summit is billed as “the last chance to save the Earth.” The Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce argue on behalf of corporations that the private sector should be the savior. More to the point, they do not want to be martyrs. The U.N. has recently reported on multinationals’ large share of global greenhouse gas emissions, a finding that, along with other recent realizations about growing corporate power, has created widespread support for international environmental regulation. From the periphery, greenwash groups pressure decision makers in Rio to support voluntary measures over enforceable standards — the victory entitles corporations to co-opt”sustainability” as their independent crusade.


Greenwashers debase Earth Day on its 25th anniversary, when the organization Earth Day USA puts what it calls the “official” Earth Day logo — the Earth Day name is in the public domain — up for sale to unscreened corporate sponsors . Making matters worse, Earth Day USA hires public relations firm Shandwick PR to coordinate its major Earth Day celebration in Washington, DC. By giving Shandwick its business, Earth Day USA effectively rewards the firm for its greenwash campaigns representing clients such as Ford Motor Company and Monsanto.


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) completes work on the “Green Guides,” a series of guidelines defining common terms used in environmentally-themed marketing. The FTC explains that the definitions are not legally enforceable.


The FTC finds that the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, is guilty of falsely claiming in an advertisement that nuclear power is “environmentally clean” and produces electricity “without polluting.” Yet the FTC takes no action against the institute due to concerns that the ad falls outside its jurisdiction. The case underscores the toothlessness of existing regulations on environmental marketing and the need to develop clear, enforceable standards.


BP explores greenwash territory where no oil company has gone before, changing its eminent name as part of a $200 million rebranding exercise to position itself at the vanguard of environmental reform within the energy industry. British Petroleum formally shortens to BP, which becomes an acronym for the company’s new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum.” The staid shield of the British Petroleum era is replaced by a green-and-yellow sunburst logo.

The new look was roundly criticized. CorpWatch’s Kenny Bruno calls it “Beyond Preposterous”, while FORTUNE writer Cait Murphy quips, “If the world’s second-largest oil company is beyond petroleum, then FORTUNE is beyond words.” Yet the company drowns out the voices of activists and pundits with a wave of print, television and billboard ads — BP proves the resilience, if not invulnerability, of well-financed greenwash.


Representatives of the Greenwash Academy, a coalition comprised of environmental and social justice groups CorpWatch, Friends of the Earth International and groundWork, host the Greenwash Academy Awards ceremony during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The awards honor companies for greenwash productions that are just as fictitious and often more expensive than Hollywood films. Winners include BP for Best Greenwash, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond for Best Director and Shell for Lifetime Achievement. The United States is awarded Best Supporting Government for representing corporate interests in environmental treaty negotiations.


Republican consultant Frank Luntz’s confidential memo proposing his party’s greenwash strategy is leaked to the press. The memo warns Republican politicians that they have “lost the communications battle” over the environment and encourages them to gain control by seizing “a window of opportunity to challenge the science” on global warming. He recommends empty but evocative buzzwords for politicians to use while stumping on environmental issues: “safer, cleaner, healthier” and “a fair balance between the environment and economy.” According to Luntz, “A compelling strategy, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

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One thought on “Greenwashing 101


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