The phenomenon of "greenwash" can be viewed from various angles. TerraChoice's "Six Sins of Greenwashing" have become widely circulated and well known. Additionally, three variations on its definition in increasing order of severity are useful—"Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company . to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy" (SourceWatch Encyclopedia). However for a richer understanding of the issues at play it is necessary to consider the direction in which "greenwash" may be heading. Getty Images' Rebecca Swift has hazarded to do just that with a piece published in the BBC's Green Room.
In this piece she argues that the practice of greenwashing is a passing trend and will soon expire. However it is somewhat unclear what she believes the implications of this will be for the green movement. We know too well that overuse of certain terms and catchphrases can have an unintended blunting effect.
In the past I have endeavored to point out the dangerous side of this phenomenon, showing how popularization of certain green buzzwords and others can give rise to false prophets. But what happens when it is a negative trend that is diluted and discredited? The obvious answer is that there are two discrete possibilities. The first is that those who would greenwash the consuming public are no longer able to do so because a heightened public awareness of the sins of greenwashing exposes any duplicitous marketing. This punishes handily in the form of lost sales, while at the same time bolstering firms whose steps to green are real. The second possibility is very troubling: it is conceivable that rather than rallying the consumer around the true religion, the false prophets could destroy the resolve of the faithful altogether. To be more clear, there is a danger that exposure of cases of "greenwashing" could lead the consumer to become deeply cynical regarding any and all green claims by corporations and other entities, even the ones which ring true.
Rebecca Swift presents her argument that in the not-so-distant future, 'green' will disappear entirely as an advertising pitch, one more victim of the changing trends of the times. She compares the phenomenon to the 'millennium bug' in which the public was warned about impending technological and infrastructural dangers in the buildup to Y2K, and foresees that, although not as suddenly, the green hype too will soon fall by the wayside. She may be right, but I stand up to say that I don't think we can count on it. Experience shows us that certain advertising themes are universal and timeless. The most obvious amongst them leap to mind, not least of all those primal human fixations of sex and violence.
It seems that impending climate change could alter the lives of human generations for much time to come, and while it may not ever command an instinctive reverence, I am hard pressed to see that we are entering the twilight days of the green theme. This of course is a positive thing. But it also serves to remind us of the attendant responsibilities. The false prophets of the green movement are real. If they are not dealt with appropriately, they could inflict permanent and irreparable damage to the cause. The best way to address this threat is with a continued effort to expose those guilty of greenwash—while at the same time engaging in an equally aggressive campaign to be sure that corporations going green for real are known, lauded, and recognized.
Copyright (c) 2008 Jackson Kern.
Jackson Kern is a contributing editor to the Alternative Channel Blog. The Alternative Channel is a website dedicated to giving non-profit organizations concerned with sustainable development, environmentalism, humanitarian issues and greenwashing an online forum for their sustainability video content. You can learn more at http://www.alternativechannel.tv.