This is a project I worked on for the Toronto Star with UBC’s International Reporting Project. Ten graduate students traveled around China finding members of the country’s young environmental movement.
Take a walk down the household cleaners section at Sobey’s some day. Try the paper aisle too. In fact, walk down any aisle in any grocery store, and from left and right, packages will cry out to you, begging you to understand that they are not the bad guys. They are not part of the problem; they are the solution.
Thank God, corporate America is here to save the day. Where would we be without their leadership, guiding us to a greener future with their selfless business practices?
The truth is, there is no such thing as a selfless business practice. Ever since an environmental conscience became the “in” thing – something that can’t be bought or sold, and is in fact dangerously conducive to reducing consumerism – companies have been scrambling to arrange themselves on the safe side of the public’s wrathful gaze.
Fortunately for our beloved manufacturers, transportation companies, oil companies (or shall I say, energy companies, as they like to be called in recognition of their new, enlightened state), and just about every other branch of industry one could name, there is a way of reversing this dangerous trend towards consuming less. There is, in fact, a way of making shoppers feel good about buying. It’s called greenwashing, and it is everywhere.
Formally defined by www.sustainabilitydictionary.com as any form of marketing or public relations that links a corporate, political, religious or nonprofit organization to a positive association with environmental issues for an unsustainable product, service, or practice, greenwashing can be more colloquially defined as the practice of lying to consumers to look like you give a toss about the environment when, of course, you do not.
With the fragile state the average consumer is in, ashamedly pushing a grocery cart loaded with non-biodegradable packaging, transported from the farthest reaches of the planet via gas-guzzling transport ships just to end up in their garbage can, it is very easy to take advantage. All it takes is a splash of green on the box, maybe some reassuring earthy brown text, and some catch phrases to take our minds off all of that and empower us to save the planet. Have you seen “all-natural” on anything lately? Formaldehyde is all-natural, by the way.
Greenwashing is wrong because it is misleading. When British Petroleum (BP) changed their name to Beyond Petroleum in 2001, and changed their logo to a flower, that did not mean that they changed their objective. A name is just a name, and Beyond Petroleum is still very much an oil company.
Greenwashing is wrong because its real goal is to placate the consumer. Companies are not telling us “don’t worry, we’ve got this” because they believe that they will have this whole planetary meltdown thing under control in a jiffy; they are telling us because if they don’t, we might start thinking for ourselves. If we don’t trust business to lead the way, we might turn to government. Worse, if we don’t trust business to have a conscience, we might turn to ourselves, and consume less; live smaller lives with fewer things.
At this point, it’s easy to credit industry for at least doing something. But what greenwashing does is highlight the bare minimum, and raise the mediocre to an undeserved status, allowing apathy to reign while we trust someone else to do our job for us. A friend of mine asked me the other day, “Sure, you can rant about greenwashing, but what do you do about it?” I had no answer. I’m still working on mine, but I know it doesn’t come from a grocery store aisle.