A Vote to End Greenwashing

18 Dec 2020
When extravagant claims are made by companies or authorities in the hope of selling products or policies, it is doubly important to ascertain the veracity of those claims. One of the areas where this practice has stealthily infiltrated itself is that of “greenwashing”. The term can be thought of as an environmental equivalent of money-laundering - appropriately so in view of the word’s origins. The environmental activist, Jay Westerveld, coined the term in the mid-1980s when he realised the policy of a hotel he visited which asked guests to reuse towels to “save the environment” was at odds with other actions taken by the hotel. Concluding that the request was merely to reduce their costs, “greenwashing” entered the vocabulary.


Usage of the term can incorporate a range of activities or policies. Most companies will recognise that their product is immediately more attractive to consumers – particularly younger consumers – if it is deemed to have “green” credentials. It is simple to make a claim that one’s product is “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” or free from being tested on animals. It is considerably more difficult for consumers to check the accuracy of the statement.


There have been incidences where companies have shamelessly promoted a product as beneficial to the environment when it actually had a detrimental impact. In 2008, an advertisement for a Malaysian palm oil claimed palm oil plantations housed native flora and fauna whereas they actually contributed to deforestation.

Inadvertently, well-intended purchasers of the palm oil were actually damaging the environment. The claims of Donald Trump to be the “no. 1 environmental President since Roosevelt” can be instantly dismissed as ludicrous but impulse purchases based on nebulous assertions by the manufacturer can cause serious damage to the environment.

The prevalence of greenwashing can also make legitimately eco-friendly companies unsure about mentioning their commendable virtues. Help is at hand, however, through websites and search engines such as STAIY or Ethical Made Easy which verify the authenticity of manufacturers’ green ethics.

Of course, greenwashing mostly covers virtuous claims which are true but not fully representative of the practices of those making them. Some will argue that even those small gestures are of benefit to the environment and should partly exonerate the body involved from the consequences of their less laudable activities.

There is some logic to this argument but we should instead seek a situation where companies do not feel the need to highlight some of their actions to distract from others. We should call time on greenwashing and out its practitioners.