The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing
Updated: May 18
The term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s to describe outrageous corporate environmental claims. Three decades later, the practice has grown vastly more sophisticated
Demonstrators protest against Nestle water bottling operations in California. According to news reports, Nestle, which operates five bottling plants in California, uses 244m gallons of water annually. Reports also said that its state water permit expired 27 years ago. Photograph: Eugene Garcia/EPA
In the mid-1980s, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads to convince the public of its environmental bonafides. Titled People Do, the campaign showed Chevron employees protecting bears, butterflies, sea turtles and all manner of cute and cuddly animals. The commercials were very effective – in 1990, they won an Effie advertising award, and subsequently became a case study at Harvard Business school. They also became notorious among environmentalists, who have proclaimed them the gold standard of greenwashing – the corporate practice of making diverting sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record.
The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, back when most consumers received their news from television, radio and print media – the same outlets that corporations regularly flooded with a wave of high-priced, slickly-produced commercials and print ads. The combination of limited public access to information and seemingly unlimited advertising enabled companies to present themselves as caring environmental stewards, even as they were engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.
But greenwashing dates back even earlier. American electrical behemoth Westinghouse’s nuclear power division was a greenwashing pioneer. Threatened by the 1960’s anti-nuclear movement, which raised questions about its safety and environmental impact, it fought back with a series of ads proclaiming the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power plants. One, featuring a photograph of a nuclear plant nestled by a pristine lake, proclaimed that “We’re building nuclear power plants to give you more electricity,” and went on to say that nuclear plants were “odorless [...] neat, clean, and safe”.
Some of these claims were true: in 1969, Westinghouse nuclear plants were producing large amounts of cheap electricity with far less air pollution than competing coal plants. However, given that the ads appeared after nuclear meltdowns had already occurred in Michigan and Idaho, the word “safe” was arguable. Westinghouse’s ads also ignored concerns about the environmental impact of nuclear waste, which has continued to be a problem.
The mysterious case of the stolen towels
In 1983, when Jay Westerveld first got the idea for the term greenwashing, he wasn’t thinking about nuclear power – he was thinking about towels. An undergraduate student on a research trip to Samoa, he stopped off in Fiji to surf. At the sprawling Beachcomber Resort, he saw a note asking customers to pick up their towels. “It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage,” Westerveld recalls. “They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’.”
Westerveld wasn’t actually staying at the resort – he was lodging at a “grubby” guesthouse nearby, and had just snuck in to steal some clean towels. Even so, he was struck by the note’s irony: while it claimed to be protecting the island’s ecosystem, he says, the Beachcomber – which, today, describes itself as “the most sought-after destination in the South Pacific” – was expanding. “I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs,” he says. “They were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows.”
Three years later, in 1986, when he was writing a term paper on multiculturalism, Westerveld remembered the note. “I finally wrote something like, ‘It all comes out in the greenwash.’ A guy in the class with me worked for a literary magazine and had me write an essay about it.” And, as the magazine had a large readership in nearby New York City, it wasn’t long before the term caught on in the wider media.
Westerveld’s essay came out a year after the launch of Chevron’s People Do campaign. As critics later pointed out, many of the environmental programs that Chevron promoted in its campaign were mandated by law. They were also relatively inexpensive when compared with the cost of Chevron’s ad budget: environmental activist Joshua Karliner estimated that Chevron’s butterfly preserve cost it $5,000 per year to run, while the ads promoting it cost millions of dollars to produce and broadcast.
The People Do campaign also ignored Chevron’s spotty environmental record: while it was running the ads, it was also violating the clean air act, the clean water act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges. But Chevron was far from the only company digging deep into the greenwashing cesspool. In 1989, chemical company DuPont announced its new double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals clapping their flippers and wings in chorus to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. However, as environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth pointed out in its report Hold the Applause, the company was the single largest corporate polluter in the US.
Other corporate claims were equally outrageous: forestry giant Weyerhaeuser ran ads claiming that it was “serious” about caring for fish – even as it was cutting down trees in some of its forests and destabilizing salmon habitats.
Muddying the waters
By the early 1990s, consumers were wising up to sustainability concerns: polls showed that companies’ environmental records influenced the majority of consumer purchases. This interest in the environment brought an increased awareness of the greenwashing; by the end of the decade, the word had officially entered the English language with its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. Since then, the trend has only increased: a 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. Among millennials, that number jumps to 72%.
“People are getting more aware of the rarity of the Earth and the ways that our actions impact it,” says Jason Ballard, CEO of sustainable home improvement retailer TreeHouse. At the same time, he notes, greenwashing has become more complex. “It’s the dark side of a very positive development,” he says.
One shift has been outreach. Many companies are now working to engage customers in their sustainability efforts, even as their core business model remains environmentally unsustainable. The Home Depot and Lowes, for example, both encourage customers to do their part by offering onsite recycling for several products, including compact fluorescent lights and plastic bags. Meanwhile, they continue to sell billions of dollars per year worth of environmentally damaging products, such as paints that are loaded with toxic ingredients and which release noxious fumes.
“It’s misdirection, and it’s intended to shift the customer’s focus from a company’s appalling behaviors to something that’s peripheral,” Ballard says.
The bottled water conundrum
Another trend, says Jonah Sachs, CEO of branding agency Free Range Studios, is linking sustainability claims to other issues, such as personal health. “There’s this perception that personal health and environmental sustainability are two sides of the same coin,” he says. “Sometimes this is true, but many times it isn’t. Bottled water is a great example: in terms of health, it’s much better than soda or other drinks, but in terms of the environment and sustainability, it’s ridiculous.”
The water industry trades heavily on images of rugged mountains and pristine lakes to sell its products. And many companies – Nestle, in particular – spend millions of dollars trying to convince the public that their bottled water isn’t only good to drink, but is also good for the planet. Over the past few years, the bottled water giant has claimed that its Eco-Shape bottle is more efficient, that its Resource recycled plastic bottle is more environmentally responsible and that its use of plant-based plastics is less damaging to the planet.
In 2008, Nestle Waters Canada even ran an ad claiming: “Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.” Several Canadian groups quickly filed a complaint against the company. Five years later, during Earth Day 2013, the International Bottled Water Association doubled down on the sustainability claims, announcing that bottled water was “the face of positive change” because the industry was using less plastic in its bottles and relying more on recycled plastic.
Sustainability promises aside, only about 31% of plastic bottles end up getting recycled, which means that “the face of positive change” creates millions of tons of garbage every year, much of which ends up in landfills or the ocean.
And the water that goes in the bottles is often equally unsustainable. Nestle’s Arrowhead water claims that “Mother Nature is our muse” and boasts that it “has a team of experts dedicated to watching over each one of our 13 spring sources” to ensure responsible water stewardship. This sounds promising until one considers that those springs are in California, which has been in a state of drought for five years. The company also bottles water in Arizona and Oregon, both of which are also experiencing droughts.
A golden oldie
Some of the classic greenwashers are also taking cues from the new greenwashing playbook. In 2013, amid worries about unemployment and continued concerns about energy sustainability, Westinghouse put a fresh face on its old claims with a brand new commercial. “Did you know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clean air energy in the world?” the ad asked viewers right before claiming that its nuclear power plants “provide cleaner air, create jobs, and help sustain the communities where they operate”.
What the commercial failed to mention was that, two years earlier, Westinghouse was cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for concealing flaws in its reactor designs and submitting false information to regulators. And, in February 2016, another plant that uses Westinghouse reactors, New York’s Indian Point, leaked radioactive material into the surrounding area’s groundwater.
Greenwashing may have taken on a new shape in the last decade, but it’s still as murky as ever.
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