This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
Greenwashing, Greenscamming and Greenspeak are all different terms for public relations efforts to portray an organisation, activity or product as environmentally friendly.
Greenwash derives from the term whitewash and indicates that organisations using greenwash are trying to cover up environmentally and/or socially damaging activities, sometimes just with rhetoric, sometimes with minor or superficial environmental reforms. Similarly Greenscamming indicates an element of fraud and deception and refers to the practice of using environmental names for groups or products that are not environmentally friendly. Greenspeak is a more neutral term meaning environmental language, jargon and terms. It is sometimes used to indicate environmental language that lacks substance, is not genuine or is merely empty rhetoric. Greenspeak is also used by anti-environmental groups to derogatively refer to arguments made by environmentalists.
Environmental public relations, or greenwash, has been a response to the rise of environmental concern, particularly in the late 1980s. Many firms responded with green marketing campaigns in an effort to portray their products as environmentally friendly and capitalise on new markets created by rising environmental consciousness. Green imagery was used to sell products and caring for the environment became a marketing strategy. For example, plastics once advertised for their throw-away convenience were now touted as recyclable.
Green marketing was often augmented with public relations strategies to give corporations an environmentally friendly persona. By 1995 US-based firms were spending about $1 billion year on public relations advice on how to green their own image and deal with environmental opposition. Today public relations and marketing firms in many countries perform similar services.
The attempt to provide a ‘green’ and caring image for a corporation is a public relations strategy aimed at promising reform and heading off demands for more substantial and fundamental changes and government intervention. Public relations experts advise how to counter the negative perceptions of business, caused in most cases by their poor environmental performance. Rather than substantially change business practices so as to earn a better reputation many firms are turning to PR professionals to create one for them. This is cheaper and easier than making the substantial changes required to become more environmentally friendly.
One of the ways PR experts enhance the image of their clients and show that they care is by emphasising their positive actions, no matter how trivial, and down playing any negative aspects, no matter how significant. Some companies make the most out of measures they have been forced to take by the government, making it seem that they have undertaken the improvements because they care about the environment. Companies that have poor environmental records can also improve their image and increase their sales merely by using recycled paper in their products or making similar token adjustments.
Another way for corporations to show they care about the environment, even if they don’t care enough to make major changes to their business practices, is to donate money to an environmental group or to sponsor an environmental project. Such donations can also have the additional benefit of coopting and corrupting environmentalists. Consultancies and perks for individual environmentalists also work wonders for getting a favourable hearing.
As well as funding genuine environmental groups, these corporations also set up anti-environmental front groups that pose as environmental groups adopting environmental names, sometimes with the similar acronyms or logos as their environmental foes to add to the deliberately fostered confusion (See also Anti-Environmentalism).
Corporations have also turned their attention to the next generation through the development and distribution of ‘educational’ material to schools. The potential to shape environmental perceptions and improve corporate images at the same time attracts many customers to the firms designing educational materials for corporations. These materials inevitably give a corporate view of environmental problems and portray activities such as clear cutting forests, coal mining and nuclear power as environmentally friendly.
Sponsorship and advertising still plays a major role in greenwashing, particularly sponsorship of environmental events such as Earth Day or Clean Up days and television documentaries on the environment. Similarly companies make use of press releases and video news releases to ensure that the media reports and emphasises their environmentally beneficial activities rather than their damaging activities.
Beder, Sharon (1997) Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Devon: Green Books.
Bruno, Kenny , Karliner, Joshua and Srivastava, Amit (2000) ‘Exposing Corporate Greenwash’, Transnational Resource & Action Center, http://www.corpwatch.org/climate/kit/index.html.
Greer, Jed and Bruno, Kenny (1996) Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism, Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network.
Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon (1995) Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.