Greenwashing by Any Other Name . . .


One of the best attended sessions at the Academy of Management meeting included Rand Waddoups, Senior Director of Business Strategy & Sustainability at Wal-Mart, speaking about their “Sustainability Index.” I could not go because I was a speaker in a competing session, but I heard a recap from some colleagues, One of the themes that Wal-Mart has been pushing is that this new index will reduce the effect of greenwashing.

Eventually, the goal of the index is to help the consumer navigate through misleading claims and be able see past greenwashing. Rand Waddoups, Senior Director of Business Strategy & Sustainability at Wal-Mart said recently said at a Greener by Design Conference, “We understand green-washing. [Our customer] doesn’t. She may not even be aware that it’s going on.” Waddoups also said about the Index, “Imagine one day when every product on the shelf has behind it enough information from a life-cycle-thinking perspective that allows us to be much, much more intelligent about how we’re buying,” he went on. “And really, in the end, eventually, what consumers should be.”

In a few recent posts, I have questioned this claim and see the proposal as a very subtle and potentially dangerous form of greenwashing. After re-reading these, I think I should make my argument clearer. The reasons turn on definitions of greenwashing. Here are a few gathered via a web search.

TerraChoice defines greenwash as:

Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) - verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Wikipedia’s definition is:

Greenwash (a portmanteau of green and whitewash) is a term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources. It is a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Finally Sourcewatch says greenwashing is:

The unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy.

The issue is not about the intentions of Wal-mart. It’s about how well they know what they are doing. Waddoup said in the above interview that, “Wal-Mart understands greenwashing.” In the light of these definitions, I would have to disagree at this point in time. Final judgment must wait until the index shows up in practice. Key words in these definitions are: unjustified appropriation, disinformation, disingenuously, and misleading. The definitions do not require some form of intentionality although the term is used primarily to expose intentional mischief. It is unintentional mischief that I worry about. Unintentional greenwashing is, perhaps, even more destructive to both the world and to consumers.

Product information needs to be both truthful and meaningful. Wal-Mart is prepared to spend a great deal of their own and their suppliers’ resources on developing a system that produces truthful information. Much, much easier said than done. Converting the answers to the questionnaire to a context that tells the consumer what the real impact of what they buy on the world is difficult and maybe impossible. Consumers can judge the results of things they buy relative to their own satisfaction and so can learn how to use product information, but they cannot when the information pertains to the environment or to the even more complex term, sustainability. The direct impacts of their actions are imperceptible to them. They can only believe they are doing the “right” thing.

In this case the “right thing” is to reduce the impact of their purchases on some relative basis, choosing the least impactful choice as measured by the Index or other label information. Is this a good idea? Certainly, if one overlooks another critical factor, the Index does not have any connection to what it names, “Sustainability.” And more, it legitimizes the purchase as doing good, disguising the more important connection to unsustainability—consumption. The index says something like, “It’s OK to buy this without having to think about the fundamental impact of your purchase on sustainability.” Consumption of goods and services, itself, is the proximate cause of environmental instability. Secondly, the economic system that is bringing you these items is the proximate cause of instability in the global social system.

I grant that the Wal-Mart system is only at its early stages. Wal-Mart staff admit “that this is a “ready-fire-aim” exercise — that the company wanted to get something out there, however imperfect, and improve it as it got real-world use.” The effort to extract and compile information from thousands of suppliers will focus players on the mechanics. If they fire before they aim, it may be too late to understand what they are doing and what emerged from the best of intentions may set back the cause of sustainability. It’s not enough to be truthful about a narrow aspect of consumption. The full meaning of every purchase at Wal-Mart’s and elsewhere needs to be exposed and transmitted to each and every consumer.

(Image courtesy of TerraChoice)

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David Levy said:

thanks for another well written post, John!
Perhaps consumers are misled that their purchases are "relatively sustainable" - they are certainly going to be confused.

It's simply not possible to reduce sustainability to a single number that combines carbon, water, and other environmental impacts. And so much depends on how products are used and disposed of...

If the index will not be very useful for consumers, one could hope that it will be valuable for firms as they try to measure and manage carbon - for doubts on this, please see "Sticker Shock" by Steve Stokes on my blog Climate Inc.