It’s not easy being green

The public health implications of greenwashing, one of the most debated issues in environmental communication these days, is given short shrift in the public and scholarly debate. Greenwashing is a public relations tactic that involves “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue” by organizations with questionable ecological track records (SourceWatch). Illustrative examples abound, including a Royal Dutch Shell ad campaign showing a rainbow of colourful flowers emitting from smoke stacks which claim that Shell’s greenhouse gas emissions are being recycled and used to grow flowers in actual greenhouses (the campaign was recently given the hook when the Dutch Advertising Authority, responding to complaints by the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, determined the ads made grossly misleading claims about the company’s environmental policy).

Another good example is the bp “energy independence” campaign, launched in 2004 to appeal to both rising public concern about environmental sustainability and national security. The Coca-Cola Company last year earned the dubious honour of winning the Polaris Institute‘s inaugural Greenwashing Award for working harder than any other multinational corporation “to present itself as socially and environmentally responsible while continuing to harm environments and communities through the production and distribution of its products.”

Top marks for greenwashing have to go to the Ford Motor Company’s re-appropriation of every kid’s favourite Muppet, Kermit the Frog, portrayed in all his cool glory, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking through the rugged wilderness singing his trademark tune “it’s not easy being green,” then stumbling upon an Escape Hybrid and realizing it’s easier than he thought. Props to the ad team for creativity, but the notion of one of the Big 3 passing itself off as a responsible steward of the environment is a little rich.

In all of these cases, the media and public debate about greenwashing tilts heavily toward concerns about unethical communication, deception, spin doctoring, and other nefarious efforts by corporations to hoodwink citizen-consumers into purchasing their products, aligning their personal values with the values of the brand, or at least forestalling negative reactions (e.g. boycotts).

All true, of course. Yet curiously missing from the debate about greenwashing are wider implications for public health. And we don’t need to be talking about the big health issues associated with global climate change and the offensive activities of the auto and oil and gas sectors (although we should certainly do so). Even at the level of the mundane, the banal, in the minutiae of everyday life, greenwashing efforts are underway. When it comes to cleaning our homes the green way, there is a confusing array of labeling issues to contend with – from “non-toxic” glass cleaner to “biodegradable” detergent, “natural” grease remover  and “environmentally safe”  furniture polish. A recent news report in the Calgary Herald noted a survey of American big-box stores, which found that 99.9 per cent of products made false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims of eco-sustainability. TerraChoice, the firm that conducted the research, broke the results into six categories of “sins,” including the Sin of the Hidden Trade-off (a chlorine-free bathroom cleaner that contains other toxic materials), the Sin of Vagueness (a product that claims to be chemical-free when all living things, including humans, are made of chemicals), and the Sin of No Proof (products that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no evidence or certification). 

All of this poses significant dilemmas for monitoring and regulation of promotional communication. Advertising Standards Canada, the nonprofit industry organization which encourages voluntary adherence to codes of conduct but has little power to enforce compliance, issued a heads-up notice to advertisers that they might expect unwanted attention if they start greenwashing. I’m sure the multinationals are worried. This is a case that illustrates the paradoxical effects of PR – while rising environmental awareness and concern from citizens has helped to generate the creative energy that underlies eco-marketing and corporate greenwashing, it has also created new market opportunities for PR professionals to provide rhetorical service to corporate actors that have been the targets of activist campaigns, thus affording them new opportunities to enhance their images and reputations. TerraChoice, after all, is not an environmental NGO but a “science-based marketing firm that helps its clients convert genuine environmental leadership into winning strategy, communications and positioning.” 

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