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The Many Shades of Greenwashing


Here’s a campaign idea for greenwashers, wokewashers and coronawashers to get behind: #TryTransparency

Green rubber ducky.

Have we ever lived in a greener, more socially aware and public-health-loving era of corporate activity?

The greenwashers tell me that bottled water is the most environmentally responsible product in the world. The coronawashers suggest I focus on the 2,700 ventilator parts that an arms manufacturer produced rather than on their main line of business. The wokewashers are proud to support Black Lives Matter, though their management ranks look awfully monochromatic. The pinkwashers say I can join the fight against breast cancer by buying their fried chicken dinner. And the sportswashers reassure me that the human rights violator cannot be all that bad since it owns one of my favourite soccer clubs.  

Well, maybe not.

Greenwashing has come a long way from the 1960s, when American electrical giant Westinghouse tried to counter the anti-nuclear movement by spending millions on ads extolling the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power plants—much more than they spent on anti-pollution research. Twenty years later, DuPont, the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. at that time, unveiled double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals clapping their flippers to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. 

Greenwashing used to be a straightforward example of corporate disinformation designed to mislead consumers about a firm’s environmental practices or the sustainability of its products. Today, it has evolved considerably into broader disinformation campaigns relating to social issues burning up in the Twitterverse. Tactics have become more sophisticated as well. Many companies engage customers in their sustainability initiatives, even as their core business model remains environmentally suspect. 

While greenwashers and their cousins are considered practitioners of the black art of marketing, what do green marketers themselves say about the state of the trade? Researchers Szerena Szabo, an MBA candidate now at DeGroote School of Business, and Jane Webster, the E. Marie Shantz Chair of Digital Technology at Smith School of Business, wondered that themselves. To find out, they interviewed marketers who use green marketing content and consultants who develop green programs or campaigns for clients. 

From the interviews, Szabo and Webster came away with a picture showing different shades of greenwashing. Turns out, it is not always easy to tell the difference between the good guy and bad guy.

The Evil Greener 

These greenwashers know what they are doing. They do not necessarily traffic in outright lies; research suggests that Evil Greeners use falsehoods sporadically at best, in under one per cent of the cases. More often, they report environmentally friendly behaviours in such a way that they cannot be verified since they offer little or no transparency. Or they brandish seemingly objective green labels that are obscure or lack credibility. A form of intentional greenwashing is known as bluewashing, practised by firms that co-opt the blue United Nations flag in order to distract stakeholders from their poor environmental records.

The Accidental Greenwasher

Accidental Greenwashers are unaware that they have an Evil Greener within their supply chain. These firms do not intend to mislead. They believe they are being transparent with stakeholders when, in fact, they are not being transparent with themselves. “Many companies are not working vertically,” says Szabo. “For example, in the clothing industry they may not be working directly with the mills that weave their fabrics or yarns. This makes it easy to unintentionally greenwash, because they don’t fully understand their supply chain.” When you’re removed from where your materials come from, she says, it takes more effort to do due diligence.

The Green Blusher

Green Blushers hide their positive environmental initiatives, hard as that might be to believe. They may be guided by moral reasoning: some believe it is simply wrong to profit from being environmentally responsible. Or they may be uncertain about the science supporting their environmental decision and would rather wait until they are sure. They may also want to avoid a potential backlash from vocal investors motivated more by financial returns than green outcomes. Green Blushers tend to be the wealthiest corporate leaders and owners who prefer to keep their philanthropy anonymous. 

Regardless of where they fit, most corporate greenwashers and other issue-washers will continue what they are doing since they are not often called out or punished by consumers. Their stock prices rarely take a long-term hit. Research shows that the tactic can be beneficial to the bottom line, unless the firm is caught in the act. And, according to one study, telling half-lies about green activity does not prove to be much better than telling lies about it. 

The risk of exposure and mockery, though, is ever present, particularly with the rise in social media. Some leaders now say it’s not worth the risk. Unilever CEO Alan Jope recently spoke out against using language and imagery linked to worthy causes solely to increase sales. 

But still, companies cannot resist. When Pinterest came out in support of Black Lives Matter, two former employees sent out a series of viral tweets that accused Pinterest senior management of racial and sexual discrimination, unfair pay and retaliation. Ride-sharing platform Uber produced an emotional video about the challenges of daily life during the pandemic. Yet, at the same time, it used coronavirus sick-leave measures to fight against giving its drivers employee status.

Course correction for greenwashers

Greenwashers can certainly choose to change their ways, and for those that do Szabo and Webster have some advice. Evil Greeners can try honesty and transparency. If they cannot make their offerings more sustainable, the researchers say, they can improve their overall image by commissioning and releasing an impact report that honestly shows where they have fallen short on their sustainability goals and what they plan to do about it. 

“This may seem counterintuitive,” says Szabo, “but several interviewees reported that consumers respond better to organizations they believe are being truthful, and proposed increasing transparency as the best method of doing so.”

Transparency is an issue for Green Blushers as well. Only for them, the issue is the potential benefits of publicizing their good work, which may inspire others to act similarly. Accidental Greenwashers, meanwhile, need to do a better job of understanding the sustainability of products from their supply chains, and to partner with more responsible suppliers where necessary. 

It is true that today’s consumers expect companies to enter the public square and take a stand on issues of broad importance and urgency. It is hard to resist the call to say or do something, even on issues that defy easy solutions or that require systemic change. But most consumers do not expect instant solutions from the firms they patronize. They do expect actions to match words, at least actions that move in the right direction. 

We are now entering the world of stakeholder capitalism, according to the World Economic Forum. And greenwashers are not invited.