Green ‘Gate: Greenwashing


Greenwashing, the act of companies misleading the public about their environmental practices as a marketing tool, is becoming increasingly prevalent as more companies adopt the strategy. But to what degree do these companies magnify their sustainable efforts, and to what degree are they fooling America?

The environmental non-profit Greenpeace describes greenwashing as, “misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Companies boast of their minor sustainable efforts in a major way, usually in an attempt to improve their good im­age to potential customers. Yet, despite all of the publicity about their environmentally friendly goals and projects, the companies rarely make any real progress.

Notorious culprits of the marketing scheme are oil and energy companies, such as Chevron and Exxon Mobile, massive chain stores, such as Wal-Mart and airlines, such as American Airlines.

Many environmental non-profits are attempting to call these companies out on their unethical advertising. Greenpeace leads campaigns against greenwashing, urging companies “to clean up your act, NOT your image.” In 2011, the Environmental Defense Fund, Earthjustice and four other non-profits fought against United and Ameri­can Airlines for advertising their green initiatives, while the airlines were filing suits in Europe against laws that would force them to take responsibility for the pollution of flights in and out of Europe.

But how big of an issue is greenwashing? Wal-Mart is a great example of a company that has effectively raised public opinion through greenwashing, while actually accomplishing very little.

In 2005, Wal-Mart set a goal of having their company supplied one hundred percent by renewable energy – a pledge that was reported by many newspapers and heavily advertised. But six years after this claim, according to an article by Stacy Mitchell in Grist, only two percent of Wal-Mart’s energy supply is generated by renewable sources.

“Because wind and solar power generally cost more than electricity from coal, nuclear, or natural gas in most places, Wal-Mart can’t or won’t buy clean energy on a scale that matters,” GreenBiz environmental business reporter Marc Gunther writes.

Wal-Mart’s sustainable campaign has brought the company a large amount of positive publicity. In fact, the per­centage of Americans who had a negative view of Wal-Mart fell from 38 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2010. Yet the reality of Wal-Mart’s sustainable efforts – such as the fact that only two percent of their energy is renewable – is rarely reported.

Despite Wal-Mart’s few impactful sustainable practices, their marketing campaigns have effectively raised public opinion. In some cases, companies can market sustainable practices relatively cheaply, effectively hiding their company’s negative environmental impact, without spending real money to make real change. That, to some, is the true danger of greenwashing.

Contact Cassidy Holahan at [email protected].