What Is Green-Washing and How Can We Stop It?

Lam_paynesprairie2
Photography by Stepfanie Lam

Ethan Landrum

Sophomore, Environmental Engineering major

A sleek, luxurious sedan glides along a scenic, forested, mountain road. The wind shakes the trees and the wheels of the car rustle the leaves. The driver reaches for and presses the Eco-Boost button on the dash. The car speeds up effortlessly, providing a beautiful juxtaposition between the modern, gray paintjob and the lush vegetation. Man, I want that car!

Winds blow over a field of yellow flowers. A tall, thin, and elegant woman dressed in a flowing white sundress retrieves clothes from a clothesline. She gently caresses a baby-blue sheet against her face, feeling the sheer softness and warmth. She smells the lilac scent in the blanket and sighs with obvious pleasure. Man, I need that detergent!

A beautifully spotted black and white cow stands gracefully in a pasture as her new, boisterous calf frolics in the grass. The view expands and shows dozens of more happy cows, peacefully grazing in a verdant patch of heaven. Three cows are standing in a row, holding up signs written in sloppy, broken English. Man, I need to “eat mor chikin!”

You get the picture. What do all of these commercials (yes, these are real commercials) have in common? They all incorporate unnecessary natural imagery to describe and define a product that isn’t very natural at all. It’s called green-washing, and it is everywhere. It describes all forms of deceptive green marketing, from claiming products are “organic” to boasting that 10% of the material used in a packaged is recycled. It’s a way for the biggest companies on the planet to reach consumers on a wider, more vague, and more mindless scale.

My favorite example of a green-washing company is Procter & Gamble, a blanket company that owns basically every household product available (from Old Spice to Febreze, from Lams dog food to Dolce&Gabanna perfumes). On the company’s website, one of the four main drop-down menus is “Sustainability.” In this section P&G boasts about its “Responsible Growth,” “Conservation of Resources,” and “Making Every Day Better” campaigns. These are all very admirable initiatives. However, selling products like Pampers’ diapers and Bounty paper-towels, directly engineered to be disposable, makes P&G an inherently unsustainable business. They profit from consumers buying items that will definitely be thrown away. This is where the green-washing comes in.

If you do about 5-10 minutes of research on any company that sells something you buy in a supermarket, retail store, or mall, you will find how unsustainable that company is. It’s just a fact of today’s economic growth patterns. It’s expensive to be sustainable. However, it is not expensive at all to make a company appear sustainable. Green-washing. That is how these companies like P&G convince consumers to continue buying their products, allowing them to sleep soundly in the mindless cognitive dissonance that is disposable consumer culture. When they sell products to consumers in green packaging, use words like, “clean,” “natural,” “organic,” “pure,” or “green,” or use any natural imagery at all, they’re not doing it for the environment. They’re doing it for your business.

Luckily, there is hope! Being an informed consumer is neither difficult nor inconvenient. With resources like greenwashingindex.com, greenbiz.com, and sinsofgreenwashing.com, information on companies that green-wash is abundant and accessible, and you can even play interactive games that test your green-wash identification skills! Yay!

Like any sustainability issue, don’t take the stance that one consumer changing their behavior is not enough to change the problem. Business is supply and demand, and you are the demand! Demand more informative, responsible, and sustainable products!

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