Greenwashing and the Challenge of Communication

With the rise in environmentalist movements in the 1980s new methods to communicate about environmental impacts. Today, we are surrounded by certifications, logos and corporate sustainability reports that claim various aspects of responsibility. However, it is hard for consumers to differentiate misleading corporate advertisements and authentic environmental work. Greenwashing is “any communication that misleads people into adopting overly positive beliefs about an organization’s environmental performance.” There are two main varieties to greenwashing, according to Bowen. These are through active communication by selective disclosure, empty green claims, and misleading narrative and discourse. The second is through association by dubious certifications and labels, ineffective public voluntary programs, and NGO endorsements and partnerships. The author also discusses drivers of greenwashing through three avenues: non-market, like NGO attention, market, earning more from mislead consumers, and internal, where good-intentions fail due to bureaucratic and hierarchical tendencies.

This article did an adequate job explaining greenwashing. I was most interested in the breakdown of greenwashing into active communication and association. Greenwashing though association seems more deliberate- companies are intentionally choosing certifications with watered down standards to appear conscious. I wouldn’t expect the average consumer to recognize greenwashing by association.

I wished the article would have talked more about the scope of greenwashing- it seems like most major companies now from Nike to Gap are now making claims of some sort of environmental consciousness. Are these legitimate or advertising ploys? I am interested in the most common forms of greenwashing. Additionally, the article should have included a case study or example of what greenwashing might look like. I would also be interested to learn the role of the state in greenwashing. How enforceable is greenwashing? What is illegal? What’s the difference in lying to consumers or persuading consumers? How can we hold industry accountable? What is the harm to consumers, if any? While this article explained the concept of greenwashing, it did little to inspire the reader to think critically about greenwashing and the ways their decisions are impacted by false representation.

Frances Bowen discusses Greenwashing in Companion to Environmental Studies (eds.Castree, Hulme, Proctor) (pg. 689).

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