Talking the green talk: Companies, consumers, and misleading environmentalism

When I hear the phrase “false advertising,” I think of those diet ads where the before and after pictures are clearly not the same person. Greenwashing is one of the more popular forms of false advertising, or “branding strategies,” around these days.

Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing in 1986 when he wrote an essay motivated by a placard he found in his hotel room about saving towels to save the environment. Westerveld thought it was a load of crap. It’s not that he wasn’t into the environment—he was actually studying tooth-billed pigeons in Samoa at the time of the incident—he just didn’t appreciate that his hotel made it seem like their sole purpose was to protect the planet when really, less towels to wash meant less money spent.

In this case, the hotel is really helping the environment but misleads naive guests into believing that this factor solely motivates their decisions. However, greenwashing is a spectrum and there are examples of companies that twist the truth in different ways. Fang Wan, who teaches at the Asper School of Business, co-wrote an article with Kent Walker on the topic, in which they define greenwashing as, “a strategy that companies adopt to engage in symbolic communications of environmental issues without substantially addressing them in actions.” The article uses the analogy of talking and walking to better explain the concept. Greenwashing is the difference between green talk (what companies say about their environmental initiative) and green walk (what companies actually do about their claims). Wan was surprised to find that green talk has no impact on financial success and, in fact, it may even hurt a little (talk + walk = no financial affect; talk – walk (greenwashing) = negative financial affect). Wan concludes, “talk alone doesn’t do it!”

Global consciousness is a new but increasingly important concept in the business world – social responsibility defines both companies and consumers. As horrible as it is that companies use their “green card” as a business strategy, Wan says that consumers are part of the problem. It is not just companies that are creating false green identities but consumers as well. For example, Wan explains that the majority of Winnipeggers say that supporting local brands is important to them, yet most of these people are planning on running to IKEA, a global brand, as soon as Nov. 28 comes around. So, are we the hypocrites?

Greenwashing is a fairly new area of scholarship. Wan says that more research can be done in regard to differentiating companies that greenwash from those that truly have environmental initiatives. Furthermore, it would be helpful to learn just how capable consumers are in recognizing greenwashing. If you would like to learn more about different ways companies greenwash, I would suggest checking out TerraChoice, “an environmental marketing and consulting firm.” TerraChoice has published a series of studies on greenwashing, which are collectively known as the “Sins of Greenwashing.” According to the 2010 report by TerraChoice, “more than 95 per cent of consumer products claiming to be green were found to commit at least one of the ‘Sins of Greenwashing.’”

From global warming and resource extraction to the burning of fossil fuels and good old pollution, the environment has enough to deal with these days! I’m thinking that Mother Nature doesn’t want to be the face of a branding strategy, unless the companies that back such marketing have pure environmental intentions. As for consumers, we can’t just pat ourselves on the back for purchasing “environmentally friendly” products anymore.

We must identify our value system as consumers and if “green” is really part of our identity, then we gotta grab our magnifying glasses and do a little sleuthing!