greenwash paint tin

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image,” greenwash is all around us. As sustainability became a hot topic for the 21st century, all too many companies have been keen to go after the ‘green pound’ with fibs, untruths, falsehoods, inventions, fabrications, misdirection… outright lies.

You really don’t want to get caught greenwashing nowadays. The Internet is full of eco-warriors who have the detection and ridicule of businesses that make untenable ‘green’ claims down to a fine art. The Advertising Standards Agency is often called upon to rule upon the greenwashing practices of companies, as this article shows. Futerra, the sustainability communications agency, produced a report listing ten signs of greenwash: collect the whole set! Marketing people the whole world over keep on trying to wrap the same old businesses up in a nice, fluffy green blanket, but it seldom works…

GreenJet poster

GreenJet campaign: widely considered to be a classic greenwash

The misleading claims are bad enough (consider BMW’s “100% Joy, 0 Emissions” press campaign) but the kind of greenwash that gets me every time is the use of suggestive imagery. Flowers growing out of exhaust pipes, and the like.

Shell’s “Don’t throw anything away” campaign – complaints were upheld by the Advertising Standards Agency

Shell’s “Don’t throw anything away” national press campaign

The small print in the advertisement above claims “we use our waste CO2 to grow flowers”. In reality, 0.325% of the company’s CO2 was used in that way, and the Advertising Standards Agency upheld complaints from Friends of the Earth, and others. The campaign was pulled.

I was an early sufferer of eco-imagery fatigue: I got really tired of seeing sunflowers, wind turbines, planet Earth cupped lovingly between beautifully manicured hands, and ladybirds on leaves. In fact, I once made the mistake of saying so. We were setting up a sustainable manufacturing website, and we had several agencies come in and pitch their concepts for how it ought to look. While one of our visitors got their laptop set up, I said, “We’re in manufacturing: I hope you’re not going to show us pictures of ladybirds on leaves, or something.”

They were.

It turned out to be quite a short meeting.


(Thanks to Peter Kinnell at the University of Nottingham who first introduced me to Greenwash, way back when.)


2 thoughts on “Greenwash

  1. Pingback: Hummer vs. Prius: surprisingly sustainable? | Capacify

  2. Pingback: Shades of Green | Capacify

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