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“Greenwashing” is an attempt by a company to create the impression that a consumer product has benefits to the environment, even when it does not or may even be harmful to the environment.

As Sara Goddard writes about the practice:

The goal is to divert the customer’s attention away from a company’s environmentally egregious record by amplifying a trivial green accomplishment.”

Not only does greenwashing deflect attention away from shoddy environmental practices, but it also prioritizes superficial green initiatives over substantive practices that place sustainability in every step of the supply chain.

Greenwashing takes advantage of well-intentioned consumers who want to make more sustainable choices about the products they consume in an effort to help ease pollution or tackle climate change.

The term was coined by environmental activist Jay Westerveld who, while on vacation, noted the hypocrisy of a hotel’s offer to guests to reuse their towels as a way to “save the planet,” even though the hotel chain was engaging in environmentally destructive activities.

In the end, Westerveld concluded the hotel was just trying to save money by not having to wash more towels.

Said Westerveld: “The word ‘greenwashing’ just came to me. It seemed really logical, pretty simple, kind of like whitewashing.”

Examples of greenwashing can be found in many industries. One possible example is the supposedly eco-friendly coffee cup rolled out by Starbucks. The cup is marketed as “fully recyclable and compostable” but that doesn’t mean it will be recycled. It could just as easily end up in the landfill like the previous cups used by the company.