Greenwash – Term used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

This term was coined by suburban NY enviromentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, in an essay regarding the hotel industry’s practice of placing green placards in each room, promoting reuse of guest-towels, ostensibly to “save the environment”. Westerveld noted that, in most cases, little or no effort toward waste recycling was being implemented by these institutions, due in part to the lack of cost-cutting effected by such practice. (Source: Wikipedia)

Of late there has been a deluge of products claiming to be “green”. From light bulbs (CFLs) that promise to end global warming one bulb at a time, to electric cars that claim to end dependence on polluting fossil fuels to green data centers. Even Reliance has jumped on the bandwagon claiming to use “environment friendly construction practices” for its Versova-Ghatkopar railway link project.

While most of the products are well meaning ones, others are just plain old marketing fluff aiming to cash in on growing consumer concern about the environment. What most companies fail to realize are the full life cycle implications of the “green” products they hawk to unsuspecting consumers.

For example, most CFL’s do reduce energy consumption and thus reduce power generation needs thereby reducing emissions from power plants. However, CFL’s also release toxic mercury vapor on breakage. This fact is not printed on packaging accompanying such bulbs. In the future, when more of such bulbs are being disposed off, environment friendly disposal will pose a problem, not to mention the real risk of chronic toxic exposure to mercury that unsuspecting consumers face.

Electric cars are being touted as the answer to a hydrocarbon constrained world. However, what most consumers don’t know is that the electric car may be responsible for just as much carbon dioxide emissions as a gas powered car. The thing with electric cars is that they rely on electricity. And as long as that electricity is generated using “dirty” power generation technology, the net effect of using such a car may be zero. It’s merely removing the pollution from the exhaust pipe of the car to the chimney of the power plant. Though the only positive here may be reduced vehicular pollution in cities.

Greenwashing even extends itself to the grossly glossed up annual sustainability reports that companies produce today. In most cases, the reports are dressed up to present the company in a favorable light (though the extent of this may vary) .

So as a consumer what can you do ? Well, the next time someone attempts to charge a premium for a product claiming to be “green”, take the claim with a pinch of salt and if you can, buy the non-green alternative instead. After all, isn’t it preposterous that you should pay more to a company so that it can stop manufacturing “un-green” products and sell you “green” products instead ? Shouldn’t it be manufacturing and selling “green” products in the first place ?

Seeing the trend though of increasing “green” products, I strongly suspect that we will need a lot of salt to make those tall claims palatable in the future.

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One Comment

  1. Reader says:

    If you’re going to copy from Wikipedia, at least give credit to them.