Is Corporate Greenwashing Headed for a Fall?


Second perhaps only to the television ads being run by presidential candidates, the airwaves are filled with commercials from large companies touting the way they are taking steps to help the environment. One Chevrolet spot shows a man telling a group of children that a hulking SUV is a “vegetarian” because it can run on ethanol fuel. Toyota shows one of its vehicles being constructed as if it were a grass hut that then disintegrates back into nature without a trace. And, of course, General Electric continues to promote its “eco-imagination.”

This kind of greenwashing is the topic of the latest E-Letter published by Good Jobs First affiliate, the Corporate Research Project. The E-Letter focuses on signs that corporate greenwashing may be headed for a fall.

Articles questioning the validity of some green claims have appeared in the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Advertising Age. A marketing firm called TerraChoice did an analysis of more than 1,000 products bearing environmental claims. After finding that all but one of those claims were false or misleading in some respect, TerraChoice issued a paper called The Six Sins of Greenwashing that analyzed the various forms of deception.

Do-it-yourself greenwashing criticism is now possible through a website recently launched by EnviroMedia Social Marketing. Its Greenwashing Index site allows users to post ads—usually video footage taken from YouTube—and rate them on a scale of 1 (good ad) to 5 ( total greenwashing).

More troubling, from the corporate perspective, are signs that government regulators and industry-established watchdog groups are giving more scrutiny to green claims. Government regulators in Norway have banned automobile ads from stating that any cars are environmentally friendly, given their contribution to global warming. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which in 1992 issued national guidelines for environmental marketing claims but has done little on the subject since then, announced in November that it was beginning a review of its rules.

The E-Letter notes that some companies will not give up their environmental claims without a fight. Perhaps the hardest nut to crack will be Wal-Mart, whose CEO recently upped the ante by imagining a time when his customers arrive at the store in electric cars that could be recharged in the parking lot using power generated by wind turbines and solar panels.

If the world can achieve completely clean cars, it is likely we will also have found a way to meet our material needs without big-box stores full of goods made by sweatshop labor. But that, of course, is not part of the Wal-Mart vision.

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