Paul de Clerk, Coordinator of the Corporate Campaign at Friends of the Earth International, describes greenwashing as “the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly.”
Companies launch cleverly-angled advertising campaigns convincing consumers with claims that are at best vague, unsubstantiated, and irrelevant — for example, “CFC free,” even though they are illegal. At worst, the claims are completely untrue or plain bizarre (organic cigarettes- seriously?)
AN UGLY TRUTH
De Clerk highlighted what he believes to be the two most outrageous greenwashing claims to have been splashed across advertising billboards worldwide saying, “A few years ago, Shell had an ad showing an oil refinery chimney with flowers coming out instead of smoke — hardly possible.”
“The second example, against which Friends of the Earth filed a successful complaint, involved the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. The ad, which ran in The Economist magazine, falsely claimed palm oil resources were sustainable when in reality the palm oil trade had caused deforestation and conflict.”
However, about a year after the complaint, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council launched another advertising campaign, this time claiming that palm oil was the “green solution.”
De Clerk says a big problem faced by environmentalists is that even when bodies like the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) in the U.K., or Friends of the Earth file complaints, companies are not fined, and are free to repeat similar campaigns.
“Filing a procedure for a greenwashing claim can take months, by which time the advert has had the desired impact on consumers.” he said.
“The companies suffer no direct impact as by the time the advert is banned, the campaign is most likely to be over.”
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDEâ€¦
Green issues matter to big business, and even coal companies are claiming to be environmentally friendly.
Energy company E.ON, based in Germany, has plans to build coal-powered plants, yet in its advertising campaigns, the company focuses on its renewable power sourcing schemes, such as windmills. Although these represent a small percentage of the product portfolio (coal, gas and nuclear energy make up the rest) they are the ones the public are usually exposed to.
The facts speak for themselves â€” energy website electricityinfo.org states that between April 2008 and March 2009 E.ON’s portfolio was: coal 43.4 per cent, natural gas 45.2 per cent, nuclear 6.2 per cent and renewables a tiny 0.3 per cent.
Both consumers and companies are all too aware of the commercial imperative to be seen to be “green.” And as environmental issues have become more important and mainstream the PR greenwashing has become more sophisticated and more prevalent.
The net losers are the companies whose green credentials are based on fact â€” and the spin-weary consumer.
Eventually consumers will get frustrated, lose all faith in green claims and start ignoring all green campaigns.