Greenwashing is a gateway drug

In Amy Westervelt's recent Sustainable Industries interview with L. Hunter Lovins, Lovins makes the case that greenwashing is good. "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change." I'm inclined to agree.

Greenwashing is a symptom of the business community's recognition that the public is demanding that they do better, and prepared to reward those that do. The quickest response is simply to re-brand / spin your company to make it look greener (greenwash). Lovins cites General Electric's "ecomagination" ad campaign as an example of profound greenwashing, with GE basically taking their existing products and slapping an 'eco' label on them (remember the dancing elephant?).

This is rampant in the building products market as well. A roofing product manufacturer recently asked me how they could make their product "look more green." Their marketing materials touted the environmental attributes of their product (greenwash), and he wanted input on whether they got the spin right for architects. I resisted the urge to choke him, and instead encouraged him to deliberately asses the environmental impacts of their current operations and identify strategies for reducing/improving that impact. Identify some areas for improvement (less toxic materials, reduce waste, etc.), make improvements, and then tout those improvements once there is a story to tell.

The greenwashing is free, but once you hold yourself up as 'green(er)', increased scrutiny follows. Plus, no one likes to be a hypocrite. Once you say you're doing it, there's a tendency to start doing it. In GE's case, Lovins points out that once GE saw their 'eco' products had twice the sales volume of the regular products, "all of a sudden a company without a green bone in its body has one--attached to its wallet."

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Check out our interview with author and Sustainable Development Expert L Hunter Lovins conducted at the Presidio Graduate School in 2009.

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Jim, et al:

I enjoyed many of the blurbs here including "Greenwashing is a gateway drug." Based on your experience and research, who are the public companies getting it right?

It seems that many of the examples sited within the "the Greenwash Brigade" could in fact be based on a true desire to change the current business model. While companies are always eager to build a deeper relationship with consumers and ads are lever they traditionally utilize, some of the proposed changes to the corporation will be more expensive/costly. Therefore, consumers have a shared obligation with the corporattion to make it work. WE produce a green, more expensive alternative, and YOU buy it. The ads underscore that obligation.

The "ecomgination" example is a good one because it is a Public Relations campaign to change minds. What is not clear from a thirty second spot is whether "real change" is taking place within GE or will we walk away just feeling better about the brand.



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