Greenwashing is a play on the term “whitewash” which means to “gloss over or cover up, or to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data.”  Merriman-Webster Dictionary.  Presumably this negative meaning of whitewash derives from the use of whitewash (water and lime) to brighten up a cottage at almost no cost.  To greenwash is to give a product or activity a positive environmental glow without actually providing any concrete or real environmental benefit from the product or action.  It is a use of words and images to deceive.

“Greenwash is an environmental claim which is unsubstantiated (a fib) or irrelevant (a distraction). Found in advertising, PR or on packaging, and made about people, organisations and products. Greenwash is an old concept, wrapped in a very modern incarnation.”

An antidote to greenwashing is eco-certification which is a process through which an independent agency — either a government entity, a non-governmental organization (NGO), or an industry consortium —verifies that a certain more sustainable practice has been followed in the production of a given good or service.  The EU administers an organic standard in Europe, sometimes called “biological” agriculture that is a form of eco-certification.

Some further ideas to explore on Greenwashing:

Identify several instances of greenwashing of a product, a service, a political ad or campaign, and analyze how it creates the greenwash effect.

Then write to the persons, companies or organizations responsible, explain how their words, images or actions constitute greenwashing and are deceptive, and demand they stop.

Does the act of whitewashing a cottage with lime and water have a negative meaning?  If not, then how did the term “whitewash” develop such a negative meaning?

Resources:  a website that keeps track of and reports on companies, politicians, and others that attempt to greenwash

the greenwash guide, futerra sustainability communications

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