The Sin of Greenwashing


Greenwashed Ad

It takes a pretty thick skull these days to dispute the problem of global warming. The numbers are there, the gradual increase in yearly and decade temperature averages, the melting glaciers, the dwindling reflective index, and even the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The facts of it have become so blatant, so obvious, even business leaders with a stake in refuting the claims of the incoming ecological disaster are finally saying, yes – there is a huge problem.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re going to do anything about it.

First, understand that the priorities of a corporation is always, first and foremost, to its shareholders. And that the role of a corporation is not, in fact, to please customers or pave the way to innovation, but generate profit. It is a business’s job to make money, and any benefits that arise from it are the oft-touted benefits of capitalism and a free economy.

But the profit and benefits of a capitalistic economy occurs at the scale of human experience – namely, years and decades. Profits and growth are expected not in the long view, but within a time frame appreciable by the shareholders. And though the disasters of global warming are the stuff of Hollywood nightmares, the destruction of vast acres of farmlands, the accelerating impoverishment of human civilization, the time scale in which it occurs at is at a far different pace from shareholder expectations.

Rather, as ecological change occurs in the course of decades and centuries, a whole magnitude faster than the basic pace of capitalistic intent, the goal of making a corporation ecologically neutral, or even friendly, is directly counter against shareholder’s intent. What is actually experienced is the onerous burden of ecological projects costing millions of dollars for no perceivable change or benefit, and a drain upon the perceived value of the company as a whole.

It is easier, then, for companies to simply greenwash themselves. To tout their supposed ecological advantages, to embellish every minor – and, importantly, cheap – improvement to their production cycle’s environmental efficiency. Public relations is, after all, much cheaper than infrastructure change.

But don’t be fooled by greenwashing. Rather, be outraged by it.

The Airbus A380, one of the worst examples of greenwashing, is a multimillion dollar craft that guzzles petroleum by the hundreds of gallons, spews it back out as atmosphere-choking pollutants, and has a production and build cost on the environment comparable to pouring industrial waste right into the sewers – and yet is touted for being “green” by virtue of being slightly less taxing on our ecosystems than jets of comparable size.

Or Comcasts’s “PaperLESSisMORE” campaign for using less paper for their bills – a greenwashing advertised by, predictably, a massive blitz of paper ads that did more than offset any marginal benefits they could’ve claimed.

Or, in the most common means of greenwashing, “organic” or “environmentally friendly” pesticides, cigarettes or other consumables whose intrinsic cost on the environment is high, regardless of how “natural” the ingredients used to make them.

The guillotine of ecological impoverishment lingers over our children’s and grandchildren’s heads. Many, if not most, of us will live to experience the consequences of thoughtless consumerism first-hand. Barring a technological singularity that will make organic existence obsolete – an admitted long-shot even amongst fellow transhumanists – our only hope for the continued prosperity of the human race is to wisen up and not trash our own and, so far, only home.

And one of the first steps we can take to do that is to apply a stinging rebuke across the cheeks of the sort of folks that are willing to pay lip service and cheer our efforts, but are tossing beer cans and wrappers out behind us.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on February 5, 2009.

11 Responses to “The Sin of Greenwashing”

  1. I was going to point out something, but in my brief research, someone else said it better than I:

    Glass trumps aluminum and plastic in “greenery” to begin with, but it’s heavy and therefore more expensive to ship…

  2. I also feel compelled to point out that despite the large size and carbon footprint of the A380 that it can actually use GTL fuel (unlike any other commercial aircraft), which means it can actually be fueled on the waste gasses of the modern crude refining process. I have no idea how much of their fuel is waste-based in practice though.

  3. Most people, when confronted with this data, will then ask, “Well, if most companies are just pretending, do we know ones that are actually walking the talk? And that are around my area so that I can buy from them? And are affordable enough for me to buy on my non-union Wal-Mart salary?”

    Not to say that corporations shouldn’t be figuring out ways of making their ecological impact minimal. But the only way I can see that happening is if there’s a really big government stick that will pound them through the crust layer if they don’t, up to the point of either seizing or disbanding their business.

  4. …and here I thought the idea of capitalism was to sell goods for the highest price possible, with the lowest cost possible and the highest wages possible. But I’m eccentric and old-fashioned.

    I disagree with the notion that green is inherently opposite to shareholder needs. Immediate needs, certainly, but I reckon Greening Expenses as in the same boat as R&D…a long-term investment with unpredictable and often subtle results. And smart companies, the companies that will be around in a hundred years, invest in R&D and Greening today. And to deny that a corporation looks after its own needs first, like any organism, is blind. It just remains to show the corporation, and its shareholders, that its long-term interests are best served by going green, as completely as possible.

    And then advertising the results.

  5. Plagiarism much?

  6. How is it plagiarism if I, er, wrote the thing? Note the author for both that article and this blog, Shawdi. Research – it’s good for you.

  7. Good article. Here’s my take:

    though in the broader context of if nonprofits should accept corporate money.

  8. […] why is associating with “green” a successful or sought-out strategy for corporations?  It’s due, in part, because consumers respond to that image. And businesses are after […]

  9. […] why is associating with “green” a successful or sought-out strategy for corporations? It’s due, in part, because consumers respond to that image. And businesses are after profit, […]

  10. […] to post what corporate donations they receive, and in what amount, and for what project. Lastly, why is associating with “green” a successful or sought-out strategy for corporations? It’s due, in part, because consumers respond to that image. And businesses are after profit, not […]

  11. […] why is associating with “green” a successful or sought-out strategy for corporations? It’s due, in part, because consumers respond to that image. And businesses are after profit, […]

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