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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.

Origin of “Greenwashing”

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.

At its core, greenwashing involves using misleading labels, buzzwords, imagery, or claims to create an illusion of commitment to environmental causes, while failing to substantively address underlying ecological concerns.

This practice can manifest in various ways, such as when companies promote a single “green” product while their overall operations remain environmentally damaging, or when politicians make vague pledges about environmental protection without enacting effective policies to bring about meaningful change.

The repercussions of greenwashing are significant.

It erodes consumer trust and undermines the efforts of genuinely responsible businesses and policymakers working towards sustainable solutions.

It can also divert attention and resources away from authentic environmental initiatives, hindering progress on critical issues like climate change, pollution, and resource depletion.

Use of “Greenwashing” in a sentence

  • The politician’s promises of environmental action turned out to be mere greenwashing, as their policies did little to address the root causes of pollution and climate change while giving the appearance of sustainability.
  • The company’s aggressive greenwashing campaign sought to divert attention from its harmful environmental practices, attempting to portray itself as eco-friendly through superficial gestures rather than substantive changes.
  • Critics accused the government of engaging in greenwashing by highlighting a few token renewable energy projects while continuing to support industries that heavily contribute to carbon emissions, undermining genuine efforts to combat climate change.