This Earth Day, Let’s Scrape Off the Greenwash
by Sheldon Rampton
Today marks the 38th annual celebration of Earth Day, and once again the event comes with its fair share of PR hype and misleading marketing campaigns. In the spirit of dedicating ourselves to genuine concern for the planet, today is therefore a good time to look carefully at corporate environmental claims, some of which consist more of empty rhetoric than real substance.
Companies like Wal-Mart are announcing environmental initiatives. General Electric has its “Ecomagnation” advertising campaign. In Singapore, a shopping center is advertising that customers can “shop to save planet earth” — and if they buy enough, they might win a new car!
The ritual of green hypocrisy frequently requires that companies and politicians redefine environmental progress in increasingly creative ways. Last week, for example, George W. Bush announced a plan to address the problem of global warming by “halting the growth” of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2025. Beyond the fact that this target date is 17 years in the future, what really means is that during those 17 years not only will greenhouse gas emissions continue, the amount of those emissions will continue to grow. As columnist Gail Collins observed in the New York Times, this would be akin to having an overweight person announce a plan to achieve “an 18 percent reduction in the rate at which he was gaining weight, to be reached within the next decade.”
Of course, this strategy of reframing failure as success is hardly unique to Bush. Last year, the Dallas-based utility TXU had plans in the works to build 11 new coal-fired power plants until it was bought out by private equity firms that had struck a deal with two environmental groups, Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Under the terms of the buyout, TXU scaled back its plan to only build three coal plants instead of 11. This of course still means burning more coal, not less, but to judge from the Earth Day section of TXU’s website, you would think the company had died and gone to environmental heaven.
As Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich observed last year, “The biggest problem with Earth Day is that it has become a ritual of sympathy for the idea of environmental sanity. Small steps, we’re told, ignoring the fact that most of the steps most frequently promoted (returning your bottles, bringing your own bag, turning off the water while you brush your teeth) are of such minor impact (compared to our ecological footprints) that they are essentially meaningless without larger, systemic action as well. … If the politics of gesture weren’t bad enough, Earth Day is rapidly becoming a firestorm of gestural shopping. Marketers today will shamelessly slap the ‘green’ label on nearly anything, including things that are demonstrably stupid and ecologically steps backwards.”
How did the actual practice of Earth Day become such a corrupted version of the original concept? As John Stauber and I wrote in our 1995 book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, this transformation was no accident. It reflects deliberate, carefully calculated strategies by the public relations industry. PR firms have carefully studied opinion polls which show that the vast majority of people in the United States (and throughout much of the rest of the world as well) are concerned that human actions are damaging the natural environment. Rather than confront public opinion head-on, therefore, they use environmental rhetoric — often consisting mostly of empty words and minor, symbolic gestures — to make themselves look green while continuing to do business as usual.
The appropriate term to describe these environmental deceptions is “greenwashing.” We have an article on the topic on SourceWatch, which defines greenwashing as “the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.”
As a result of its reliance on greenwashing, the public relations industry has redefined the terms “environmental” and “green” to mean the very opposite of what those terms evoke for most people. “Environmental public relations,” for example, refers to a PR campaign designed to lobby against environmental regulations. E. Bruce Harrison, the man often considered the founder of “environmental public relations,” got his start when he helped the pesticide industry attack Rachel Carson and her classic 1962 environmental book, Silent Spring. By the 1970s, however, Harrison began to adopt a more subtle approach, aimed at undermining environmental activism from within, by offering corporate cash to environmental groups that could be persuaded to moderate their activism.
“The activist movement that began in the early 1960s … succumbed to success over … the last 15 years,” Harrison proclaimed in his 1993 book, Going Green, which argued that large environmental groups had become so focused on fundraising that they were really businesses themselves. As he put it, the environmental movement’s most pressing need was “not to green, but to ensure the wherewithal that enable it to green.” The need for money and a “respectable” public image, he said, provided the motivation for green bureaucrats to sit down and cut deals with industry.
Harrison and other PR firms also work through a variety of green-sounding front groups that have been created precisely to create confusion about environmental issues. Many people, for example, have heard of Keep America Beautiful (KAB), ostensibly an anti-littering organization. In fact, KAB is funded by major corporations such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch, as well as major tobacco companies, and it has refused to support legislation that would make companies responsible for recycling the bottles, cans and cigarette butts that they produce.
Some groups still attack environmentalism head-on. This year, for example, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group formerly known as Citizens for a Sound Economy, is using Earth Day as the occasion to launch a “nationwide hot air balloon tour” aimed at ridiculing what it called “global warming alarmism.”
Some environmental front groups adopt a more subtle strategy. The Greening Earth Society, a project of the Western Fuels Association, claims that greenhouse gas emissions are a good thing because they will lead to greater plant growth and a greener environment. The The Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a front group for the American Petroleum Institute, was created by the Burson-Marsteller PR firm to lobby against air pollution controls.
There is a reason why front groups adopt language that means the very opposite of what they really intend. As George Orwell observed in his essay on politics and the English language, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Greenwashing is ultimately an attempt to obscure awareness of environmental pollution by polluting language and thought itself in an attempt to stop people from thinking clearly about the issues they face.
In this degraded information environment, it helps to have some means of identifying the most common deceptions. For that purpose, our SourceWatch article includes links to examples of greenwashing throughout the world — Australia, Europe, Canada, the United States. We also have dozens of articles about environmental front groups and other greenwashing-related topics. Like all articles on SourceWatch, these profiles are open to public editing, so you can add your examples and research.
Of course, not every environmental initiative on Earth Day should be dismissed as greenwashing. For example, Heather Clancy at ZDNet has compiled a short list of environmentally-themed marketing campaigns that actually look worthwhile. Genuine efforts to protect the environment should be praised and valued, which is all the more reason why phony marketing campaigns and outright attacks on the environment should not be allowed to masquerade as the real thing.
Sheldon Rampton is research director at the Center for Media and Democracy.