What is ‘Greenwashing’?

You know what a ‘whitewash’ is, don’t you? You know what a ‘whitewash’ is. That is when the truth is swept under the carpet.

Here is an example.

Barbie Dolls

For decades, Barbie has been an icon of girlhood.

It is arguably the world’s most popular doll.

It was almost aggressively a white skinned, blue-eyed, blonde.

It was sculpted to European-descended perfection.

So was her companion, Ken.

There are now Black Barbie and other dolls for non-White children (and for white children who want them).

Yet the hallowed status of the White Barbie in our culture as well as, until recently, the overabundance of White protagonists in fairy tales and children’s stories, from Cinderella to Goldilocks, has created a ‘whitewashed’ childhood world.

That is an example of a ‘whitewash’.

Now, a ‘Greenwash’ means quite a different thing.

‘Greenwashing’ is a harmful and deceitful way of advertising that a company is ‘greener’ than it really is.

The range of ‘Greenwashing’ can be as subtle as a misleading packaging, all the way to fossil fuel companies claiming to be ‘eco-champions’.

Either way, when ‘greenwashing’ happens, we need to call it out, so the companies that practise it are forced to account for their actions.


A classic example of greenwashing happened when Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests.

It did this by fitting its vehicles with a ‘defect’ device software.

Whenever the vehicle was being tested by regulators for emissions, Volkswagen’s software could detect the test – and wait for it – then alter the vehicle’s performance to reduce the emissions level.

While all this was going on, Volkswagen portrayed to the public that

its vehicles had ‘eco-friendly features’.

In fact, Volkswagen’s engines were emitting up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.

That is one example of ‘greenwashing’.

The fuel giant, BP

BP changed its name to ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

It made public announcements that it had added solar panels on its gas stations.

In December 2019, an environmental group called ‘ClientEarth’ lodged a complaint against BP.

These ad campaigns, called BP’s global ‘Keep Advancing’ and ‘Possibilities Everywhere’, focused on BP’s ‘low-carbon energy products’.

In reality, over 96% of its annual expenditure had been on oil and gas. 

So, ClientEarth accused BP of misleading the public with its advertisements.

The complaint was lodged with the United Kingdom’s National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, or ‘NCP’.

NCP is a body that sits within the UK’s Department for International Trade.

OECD Guidelines are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries.

The guidelines encourage global companies to incorporate social, human rights and environmental considerations into the way they do business.

A precedent against greenwashing

In its decision, NCP found that ClientEarth had a legitimate interest in the complaint, and that the complaint was material and substantiated.

In February 2020, BP withdrew its advertisements.  

BP’s CEO Bernard Looney promised an end to ‘corporate reputation advertising’.

BP committed to redirecting its advertising resources towards advocating for progressive climate policies.

BP had withdrawn its ad campaign.

In June 2020, the NCP stated that it would not proceed further with the complaint.

ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac said – and I will try to quote her in full: –

“We took issue with BP giving the impression that it’s racing to renewables, that its gas is cleaner, and that it is part of the climate solution, when the vast majority of its spend is still on fossil fuels.”

Today’s decision sets a precedent for people to use the OECD guidelines to hold companies to account for their greenwashing on the basis of consumer interests – including in their advertising.

Fossil fuel companies using advertising to mislead the public over their climate impact have been put on notice.

Ideally, all fossil fuel advertising should be banned, unless it comes with a tobacco-style health warning about the risks of climate change, including the dangers of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels.

The public should not be misled, and fossil fuel companies must be accountable for the damage they do.”

Alarming escalation

In recent years, Greenwashing has escalated alarmingly.

This is because of the growing consumer demand for green products.

So, businesses use all manner of underhanded tactics.

So, a ‘greenwash’ occurs when a company says it uses sustainable practices – but does not do so.  

It is all a public relations ‘tactic’.

Businesses go out and hire Public Relations professionals, instead of hiring sustainability experts.

PR experts are asked to ‘improve’ the business’s ‘image’ as a ‘sustainability practitioner’.

Some trees are planted in a blaze of publicity.

Or some river clearing is done over one weekend.

In reality the Boards do nothing meaningful, other than spouting the inanities scripted by their PR-moguls.

They do not adopt meaningful long-term sustainability policies: and none are put into practice.

The training given to the management is largely ignored.

The word ‘sustainability’ rears its silvery head in websites and Annual Reports.

That is all.

Nothing more is done.

That is a ‘greenwash’.

It is ‘lip service’ in its true sense.

If you are a business sincerely concerned with sustainability, this is what you should do

With the buzz on greenwashing, companies need to be careful of presenting baseless claims of being environmentally friendly.

It only takes one complaint to instigate an investigation against the claims your business makes in the social media.

Once your business is exposed, a drop in profits is only the beginning.

The worst is complaints of lower consumer confidence.

A reputation lost is hard to regain.

Consumers do not forget or forgive easily.

The question is, how long will you ignore Sustainability Practices before your customers refuse to have anything to do with your products?

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