The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Greenwashing vs. Climate Sanity

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Now and then, I come across an organization that is very proud of itself about some climate-related action or other and I suspect that not all is as it seems.

No, I’m not going to launch into a rant. No, I do not want to make great be the enemy of good. I do not want to discourage anyone from making changes even if those changes are small to begin with. I do not want to let great be the enemy of good.

But greenwashing is not the same thing as baby steps, and it is important to no the difference; to greenwash, either as an individual or an organization, is to make it look like you are doing more than you really are so you get political and social credit without having to actually earn it.

There is no hard and fast line between greenwashing and genuinely pro-environmental behavior. Rather, between the extremes of angelic purity on the one hand and dastardly lying on the other lies a whole spectrum of organizations interacting with each other and with the public to raise money and win support for activities environmental and otherwise. Any attempt to judge on sincerity or intent takes a person down a rabbit hole of abstracted ethics that has little to do with the political and economic reality within which real activists operate. Instead, let’s look for signs an organization is seeking disproportionate credit–and insist that they step up their game so as to deserve the credit they get.

Here is my personal list of red flags:

Missing low-hanging fruit

An organization calls a press conference about their beautiful new bike shelter (meant to encourage low-carbon commutes) but employees do not routinely turn out the lights when they exit rooms.

Misleading photo-ops

The CEO appears prominently in publicity materials for programs he or she did not actually organize.

Mismatch between new “green” programs and ordinary activities

Building a fancy new bike shelter (with press conference) while also maintaining strict climate controls in the buildings (e.g., 78° F. year-round) and selling bottled water in the cafeteria.

Mismatch between the values of different departments

A company owns two brands of similar products, one of which has a very small carbon footprint (and is advertized as such) and the other has a very large carbon footprint.

Conflict of interest

A company publicly funds climate research while investing in petroleum.

If any of the above is going on, it is possible the organization is actually misrepresenting themselves. It is also possible they are completely above board, but just able to do better than they are. The thing is, if an organization makes being perceived as “green” part of its business plan, then that means they care about public perception–and the public can sway them by insisting that they uphold higher standards.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “Greenwashing vs. Climate Sanity

  1. Good article! I’m very glad to know you as a friend on face-book.

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