Open any progressive newspaper or magazine these days and you’re likely to see a barrage of advertisements for some of the most socially and environmentally irresponsible and destructive corporations on the planet, extolling their own virtues in carefully contrived hard-sells designed to create the myth that they actually care about anything other than maximizing their bottom line. It’s called greenwashing (a variant of whitewashing, the time-honoured way of covering up illegal and immoral activities with a thin veneer of denial, false alibis, coverups, indignant protestations and lies). This week’s New Yorker has ‘everything is wonderful, especially us’ ads for Chevron and BP before you even get to the table of contents. Can you imagine the Wall Street Journal or trashtalk radio allowing PETA and the WWF to advertise in those media, without so much as a comment?

Greenwashing, defined in the OED as ìdisinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public imageî, is essentially deceptive advertising, but because this advertising is not talking about its product, it is not illegal. It is, of course, morally reprehensible that corporations ranking near the top of the Boycott List for their interminable litany of irresponsible actions, would choose to lie (mostly by omission) to citizens and consumers, and then write off the cost of these lies as a tax deduction, as a ‘cost of doing business’. The taxpayer therefore gets a triple hit — they pay more for the product to cover the cost of the deceptive ads, they pay a proportionally higher share of taxes (individuals are not allowed to write off the cost of their lies as a tax deduction), and, ultimately, they pay for the socially and environmentally irresponsible behaviour of these corporate liars — global warming, pollution-related health costs, the social costs of offshoring and stripping away of employee benefits, the cost of wars to secure cheap energy, the massive degradation of land and loss of biodiversity etc., that these corporations are directly responsible for. Remember, ExxonMobil, the most irresponsible corporation of them all, has yet to pay a penny for the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, one of the most flagrant and extreme environmental crimes in our planet’s history.

The tactics here are two-fold: (1) brainwash uncritical citizens into believing that corporations really do care about social and environmental issues, and (2) sap the energy and blunt the intensity of critical citizens by forcing them to respond to greenwashing ads and by inviting them into meaningless ‘dialogues’ that will make them believe the corporation in question is actually interested in at least listening to their concerns.

So what can be done about it? Not much, alas:

  1. Don’t be fooled: Learn to recognize greenwashing as just another form of propaganda. Be aware of it. Show others how to think critically, too.
  2. Don’t buy it: Boycott organizations that use these tactics, and tell others why you’re doing so.
  3. Complain to the greenwashers: Write them and tell them (briefly) that you don’t like being lied to, and you’re not fooled by their phony PR.
  4. Complain to the media: Tell magazines you like that you don’t like them accepting ads from greenwashers, and that such ads undermine the integrity of the magazine or other media organization.
  5. Don’t get sucked in: If you’re an activist, don’t let greenwashers blunt your energies by getting into drawn-out, useless exchanges with them, or letting them put you on some meaningless ‘advisory board’ meant to slow you down and shut you up. You may be able to change the system better from inside, but don’t for a minute believe that these exchanges or positions put you ‘inside’.
  6. Support whistleblowers: Often it is public servants in the very governments and agencies that are in the back pockets of corporate interests, or employees of the corporations themselves, who blow the whistle on illegal and unethical behaviour and show greenwashing for the lying it really is. We need stronger laws to protect whistleblowers, and media that report what they have to say.
  7. Support courageous media: When a media outlet reports (or does investigative reporting to surface) corporate wrongdoing, it risks the wrath of the entire corporatist establishment, and with it accepts the possibility of large advertising revenue losses and even lawsuits. We need to celebrate media organizations that are willing to pay that kind of price to do their job: telling the truth.

We’re not going to stop it. Greenwashing is a multi-billion dollar activity that is carefully and professionally orchestrated using all available corporatist machinery: Corporations, powerful industry associations, heavily-financed lobby groups and the governments they have bought. But if we take the steps listed above, greenwashers might find that their efforts are starting to backfire on them. The presence of these self-serving ads might start to be seen less as an indication of corporate responsibility than as evidence the corporation has something to hide. As in “Methinks they doth protest too much”.

Cartoon from Minimum Security by Stephanie McMillan

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6 Responses to Greenwashing

  1. otterhound says:

    Dave, I don’t think you are correct when you say “ExxonMobil…has yet to pay a penny for the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster”. The “Expose Exxon” site you linked to says otherwise. It says that Exxon has paid $2.5 billion so far, but is appealing a punitive damages award. []. Not trying to be an Exxon apologist, but one should try to be accurate about those whom one indicts.

  2. Emily says:

    I wrote a research paper on greenwashing a few years ago for a sociology course – available here: too used the cartoon above. :)

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Otterhound. I should have said “has yet to pay a penny in compensation”. And Emily Pollard’s (no relation to me) paper is well worth reading — thank you, Emily!

  4. I do not see any use about complaining about these big oil companies. They will get away with it anyway, as far as I can see it…

  5. Duncan says:

    Srinath, i think that attitude doesnt help. We need to be active for a world moving fast, and take advantage of internet as a medium to organize ourselves efficently and accordingly to our principles. I know that the disposition exists, only we need a “push” forward to begin doing significant mass driven changes.Dave, your article really caught me by surprise, becouse i didnt see what the big notgreen corporations (if there is any green really green around there).Telling the truth is always the best way to improve liars attitude.Best wishes to you and to your regarding job here.

  6. Meryn says:

    Srinath: I have suggested this topic to Dave. While I don’t think we can stop those companies from doing those things, I think it’s important that we know about their tactics. Dave never mentioned the term greenwashing before on this blog I believe. I thought it ought to have a place here.I think there are many people who are genuinely interested in environmental politics, but are unkwoningly fooled by such clever marketing campaigns. Maybe those tactics are obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re obvious for others.Maybe it’s preaching to the choir… I don’t know what kind of people read Dave’s blog. But if this blogs attracts a more general public, it would be sad if they don’t understand our opinion because we don’t speak about the things that are ‘obvious’ to us.Maybe there should be an introductionary course into environmental politics?

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