Greenwashing: The Benedict Arnold of the Green Revolution

by Chicago Agent


Not long ago, a major retailer launched its largest sustainability campaign to date. The retailer printed – yes, printed – 20 million, 16-page publications intended to help customers find budget-friendly ways to help the planet. The booklets were inserted into several consumer magazines and handed out at stores. 

All together, that’s 320,000,000 pages of printed material, totaling more than 5,920 tons of CO2 emissions. “Eco-friendly” products such as STP fuel additives, plastic sandwich bags that use 25 percent less plastic and window treatments that reduce home heating and cooling costs compared to ordinary curtains were featured. Ed Mazria, founder of the 2030 Challenge, said it best, “You can put a tuxedo on a hog, but it’s still a hog.”

At the recent Green-build Conference in Boston, an asphalt marketer was willing to brave a showroom of eco-minded professionals to promote the company’s product as a sustainable choice for paving. I commend his bravery, but to highlight this particular product as sustainable was a questionable choice, given what the majority of attendees know about petroleum-based production and adverse heat island effect consequences. The leave-behind brochure distributed at the conference made no mention of these important issues. 

The two examples that I have provided above illustrate something that has become commonplace in our society: greenwashing. Webster’s Dictionary has even adopted this new phrase and defines it as: the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities. Even the terms “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable” are being used in misleading ways in many industries. The phrases “less environmentally harmful” and “less reliant on non-sustainable sources” are more suitable options. 

To be fair to the examples cited above, both are making great strides to increase the sustainable practices of their organizations. The retailer is currently tracking waste and carbon reductions through the implementation of sustainable strategies such as reduced packaging and store operations. The asphalt organization is piloting eco-friendly asphalt that can be produced at lower temperatures, will include double the recycled content, will last longer and can be installed as a porous application to reduce storm water runoff. The organizations are not necessarily environmentally unfriendly, they are just muddying consumers’ purchase decisions by leaving out integral pieces of the broader sustainability puzzle. To better understand how this is being done, check out greenwashingindex.com. The bottom line is that nothing is truly sustainable until it can close the loop on energy, waste and natural resources. 

The same can be said for the design, construction and real estate industries. I recently read that a Chicago real estate company is “the first agency ever to receive Green Certification companywide.” I appreciate this because I work for a company that takes pride in the number of LEED Accredited professionals that we employ. However, we should be careful not to flaunt these achievements to our clientele without being able to back them up with quantifiable performance data. Doing so would be comparable to launching an eco-friendly advertising campaign that is essentially selling fuel additives and petroleum-based plastic bags. 

Green is in right now and everyone wants to hop on the hybrid bandwagon lest they be left behind. However, while hopping on this bandwagon, we should refrain from slapping a green sticker on our product in the hope that consumers will perceive it as something that makes a real difference. 

It’s unlikely we’ll ever reach the point where consumers have the time and resources necessary to make informed decisions on every single item they purchase and bring into their homes. But if there’s going to be a green revolution, we can start by holding the biggest players accountable. Global, multi-billion dollar companies must act as responsible marketers. It’s unrealistic to expect that smaller companies, the government, and everyday citizens will adopt green behaviors if the companies that are supposedly leading the charge are operating in a disingenuous manner.

Colin Rohlfing, LEED AP, is an associate and Group Sustainable Design Leader at architecture firm HOK in Chicago, hokchicago.com. Rohlfing can be reached at colin.rohlfing@hok.com, or call him at 312.782.1000.

Copyright 2009 Agent Publishing LLC

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