What is Greenwashing?

Jan 07 2010

Because corporations operate globally, and abuses may happen far away, consumers are dependent on governments, the press, and watchdog organizations for critical information about environmental transgressions. Rather than fill that need, many politicians and news organizations have looked the other way. These are, after all, the same corporations making campaign contributions and buying advertising. In the case of the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service, agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels Midland has long sponsored the News Hour, while Mobil sponsored dramatic programs. As James Ledbetter explains in Made Possible By, neither corporation has come under intense scrutiny by the News Hour. ADM, facing a serious scandal in 1995, got off easy on the News-Hour: “Not until October 1996–when ADM was hit with a $100 million criminal penalty for price-fixing, seven times the amount of the next-highest such penalty–did the News Hour devote a full segment to this scofflaw corporation.” In effect, Ledbetter says, “ADM could not bribe the News-Hour into ignoring the ADM scandal altogether, but its underwriting serves to narrow and contain the parameters of discussion on public television.”

When some of the largest media corporations are owned by industrial manufacturers, and institutions sponsored by taxes have no teeth, clearly there’s a lack of oversight. Fortunately a combination of whistle-blowing and citizen zeal has brought to light many serious problems. This has created some pressure. The very existence of greenwashing is evidence that corporations recognize their vulnerability to coordinated criticism. Yet it’s also evidence that public relations projects are viewed as cheaper than redressing the wrongs that create popular unrest. G.E. was forced to disclose that it had spent $800 million to avoid dredging the Hudson River, into which it had dumped millions of pounds of PCBs.

As sources of globally accessible information have proliferated with the emergence of the World Wide Web, the situation has gotten more complicated for corporations with bad environmental “externalities” (a term from economics which describes costs shirked by the corporations, such as costs to the environment). Marketing campaigns have in some cases become stealth activities. Exxon-Mobil has been very agressive in creating front groups that express Exxon-Mobil’s opinions but with names that imply citizen action. Telecommunications giants like Verizon have done the same. During the intense 2006 campaign to denigrate “Net Neutrality” many articles sprang up to explain who was behind the various organizations that claimed to be champions freedom.

Who would suspect groups with names like “Consumers for Cable Choice”, “Freedom Works”, and “Progress and Freedom Foundation”? As it turns out, they’re all “astroturf” (false grass-roots) organizations set up to misinform the public by the telecommunications giants. Link “Hands off the Internet” sounds like activists wanting to protect the Internet. But it’s really an industry-backed organization that spent $20,000 a day on television commercials aimed at eliminating long-standing net neutrality protections so that telephone and cable companies could maximize their profits and minimize competition.

What would motivate commercial media to attack this type of activity? These front groups are a an additional source of advertising revenue! Even when the media organs aren’t directly owned by polluters (e.g. MSNBC and NBC owned by General Electric), the entanglements of overt and covert advertising are enough to prevent the media from agressive self-regulation of this type of deception.

Many companies have indeed come around, and deserve their new badge of honor. But some paint themselves green no matter how much harm they do. From Exxon to Ford, from Mobil to Monsanto, the world’s worst polluters buy fuzzy, feel-good advertising with an environmental message. Columnists and politicians who’ve pushed catastrophic policies like utility deregulation and the war in Iraq now genuflect at the media’s green altar. Without a hint of irony, some claim authorship of a movement they’ve scorned for decades. Link