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  •  What is Greenwashing, and Why is it a Problem?
  • The following is from a work-in-progress by Melissa Whellams and Chris MacDonald. It is an effort to expand upon a topic that we first explored in an entry on Greenwashing that we wrote for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Business Ethics & Society (Sage, 2007).

In an advertisement in National Geographic magazine in 2004, Ford Motor Company tried to convince readers of its commitment to the environment by announcing the launch of the Escape Hybrid SUV and the remodeling its River Rouge factory. One print ad read, "Green vehicles. Cleaner factories. It's the right road for our company, and we're well underway." What Ford failed to tell readers is that it only planned on producing 20,000 of its Hybrid SUVs per year, while continuing to produce almost 80,000 F-series trucks per month. Moreover, just prior to the campaign's release, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Ford had the worst fleet wide fuel economy of all major automakers. Ford's failure to live up to its environmentally friendly image earned the company first prize among America's top ten worst greenwashers of the year.

"Greenwashing," a pejorative term derived from the term "whitewashing," was coined by environmental activists to describe efforts by corporations to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings. The term "greenwashing" was originally confined to describing misleading instances of environmental advertising, but as corporations' efforts to portray themselves as environmentally virtuous have diversified and proliferated, so have charges of greenwashing. The term is now used to refer to a wider range or corporate activities, including, but not limited to, certain instances of environmental reporting, event sponsorship, the distribution of educational materials, and the creation of "front groups." However, regardless of the strategy employed, the main objective of greenwashing is to give consumers and policy makers the impression that the company is taking the necessary steps to manage its ecological footprint.

What's wrong with greenwashing?

1. Most obviously, greenwashing is misleading. It attempts to deceive us, making us think that a company with an awful environmental track record actually has a great one. Not all environmental advertising is dishonest, of course. But any advertising legitimately labelled as "greenwashing" is dishonest, and that's a problem.

2. Greenwashing could result in consumer and regulator complacency. If one corporation in a particular company gets away with greenwashing, other corporations will follow suit, thereby creating an industry-wide illusion of environmental sustainability, rather than sustainability itself. This creation of the illusion of environmental sustainability could have dire social consequences as consumers will continue to use products and support companies that further environmental degradation and reduce the quality of living conditions for future generations (Davis, 1992).

3. Greenwashing may also engender cynicism: if consumers come to expect self-congratulatory ads from even the most environmentally backward corporations, this could render consumers skeptical of even sincere portrayals of legitimate corporate environmental successes. Thus well-meaning companies, companies committed to responsible behaviour with regard to the environment, have every reason to be critical of companies that greenwash.

Sources Cited:

Davis, J. (1992). Ethics and Environmental Marketing. Journal of
Business Ethics
, 11:2, pp. 81-87.

Other Greenwashing Links:
Chris MacDonald