How To Know If You Are Being Greenwashed.


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Doing some research on my weekly greenwashing feature, I came across this informational post over at Sourcewatch that outlines the rules of thumb you should watch for detecting greenwashing. I thought it was so perfect and dead-on that I would share it with you guys. We as consumers (and just regular old citizens, really) are being bombarded with “green” by companies looking to cash in on the eco-minded among us, like it’s some kind of passing fad. Fortunately, it’s not – but that doesn’t stop companies from trying to greenwash us instead of just doing the right thing in the first place. According to Sourcewatch, “greenwash campaigns are designed to defuse skepticism of journalists, politicians and activists.” Plain and simple, they are just trying to fool us… and it’s up to us to learn how they do this and how to avoid it at all costs.

  • Follow the Money Trail: Many companies are donors to political parties, think tanks and other groups in the community. Ask about all their donations, not just those they boast about in glossy documents such as the corporate social responsibility reports.
  • Follow the membership trail: Many companies boast about the virtues of their environmental policy and performance but hide their anti-environmental activism behind the banner of an industry association to which they belong. Find out what industry association companies are members of and check and see what their policies are.
  • Follow the paper trail: Most companies, or their trade associations, will make submissions to government and other inquiries on a wide range of issues. Often these submissions will be posted to a website. They will also send lots of letters to politicians and government agencies, which can be accessed by Freedom of Information Act searches. You will probably discover that instead of lobbying for tougher environmental standards, they are busy trying to weaken the ones that exist.
  • Look for skeletons in the company’s closet: Every company has major problems that it doesn’t want the public and regulators to know about. Check for information on the company with watchdog groups and in the media and compare that with what they disclose.
  • Test for access to information: Many companies will make lofty claims about their commitment to transparency and providing information to ‘stakeholders’. Don’t just take them at their word. In their reports they will probably refer to environmental impact statements, reviews, audits, monitoring data and other information. If it relates to an issue you are interested in, ask to see it. And remember that ‘commercially confidential’ is just corporate speak for ‘no’.
  • Test for international consistency: Most companies will operate to different standards in other countries. Check and see whether their operating standards and procedures are consistent.
  • Check how they handle their critics: Some companies go to extraordinary lengths to try and silence their critics. This can involve everything from legal threats to funding and collaborating with police and military forces.
  • Test for consistency over time: It is common for a company to launch a policy or initiative and then starve it of funds.

You guys have seen me write about plastic water bottles made from plants, a Sustainable Brands conference with participants like Walmart and Clorox, and a Dow Chemical “Live Earth” event – and those are the “easy” to spot examples of greenwashing. It is becoming more and more prevalent in our lives, and it’s up to us to notice it, publicize it, and call out those companies trying to trick us with their marketing gimmicks.

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  1. This is a really awesome and useful list, but do you have any tips for how to actually *use* it? How do you find out about a companies standards in other countries, for example?

  2. Beware, the next green-wash is transmission lines to “support Global Warming” . If you want to see a doosy check out the proposed Sunrise Powerlink by SDG&E, owned by Sempra, whose CEO until recently was also on the board for Haliburton. Arnold Schwarzenegger convinced Obama this was a great idea before the election ink was dry. He just isn’t getting it. -Arnold , the actor who became gov over night on the heels of California energy contract fraud is telling the president how to be economically green. Should just ask C. Pope, huh? Hey, news flash, Obama, did you think Haliburton moved away the day you got elected? Hardly. He who has the power over the power has the power over any legislative body in the world. Did the Sierra Club fight it? Oh no, recently they issued an order to their California chapters to check in before discussing transmission. Welcome to Clorox-gate II. The Secretary of the dept of Agriculture was sending “stakeholder” notices directly to administrator, Barbara Boyle. Gee, forgot about the Forest Service when siting the wires did ya? Wilderness, RAREII, Eagles, Creeks, didn’t think you’d mind. Wonder how many wind mill corps are in the SC retirement plan?

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