The green washing of image: history of ‘greenwashing’


It all started with a sign on the door of a hotel on a private island in the Pacific, the Beachcomber, today an island-resort in the Fiji archipelago. “Save our planet,” began the ad, which continued: “Every day thousands of liters of water are used to wash used towels only once. You choose: a towel on the towel rack says’ I’ll use it again. A towel on the Soil means ‘Please replenish it.’ Thank you for helping us conserve the vital resources of planet Earth. ” And it was finished off with the recycling symbol with its three green arrows in the shape of a circle.

Was the message a call for responsibility to customers or an example of maximum cynicism in the midst of the siege of this natural paradise? This type of poster is now common in tourist establishments around the world, but in certain situations they can be very shocking. It was then 1983 and Jay Westerveld, a college student passing through on a research trip, had come to Fiji to surf. The young man was staying in a much more modest hostel, but went into the Beachcomber to get a clean towel, when he saw the notice to save the planet.

For this ecologist it was a blow to the face. Like good advertising slogans, but just the opposite effect. While the Beachcomber (one of the most sought after destinations in the South Pacific) was filled with messages in defense of the environment and coral reefs, the hotel complex was in full expansion, which was going to cause a much greater impact than the wash of towels. Three years passed before a colleague asked him to write an article for a local scholarly journal. Westerveld recalled the notes he had taken on his voyage across the Pacific, and it was then that he defined greenwash (green wash), the practice of that hotel that wanted to project a false environmental image.

The magazine in which his article appeared was quite popular in the New York area, so the term coined by Westerveld soon became popular in other media circles. The word soon became the true definition of this marketing maneuver, and the phenomenon greenwash It was already on the lips of the media in 1986: it was an increasingly common practice, but by no means a new reality.

Much earlier, in the 1960s, there are already cases of the use of advertising to clean up the image of brands identified for their environmental impact. An example is the nuclear power division of the North American power company Westinghouse. Threatened by the growing popularity of the anti-nuclear trend, the energy giant fought to avoid questions about its safety and environmental impact through a series of advertisements proclaiming the cleanliness and proper operation of its nuclear plants. One of them contained a photograph of a power plant in the middle of a crystalline lake while proclaiming: “We are building nuclear plants to offer you more electricity … our nuclear plants are clean, safe and orderly.”

While some of his arguments were real (Westinghouse plants produced high amounts of electricity creating less pollution than their coal competitors), he also ignored other issues that showed just the opposite. Not surprisingly, in those years there were several scares at nuclear facilities in the US: in 1961 an accident in a small test reactor at the Starionay Low-Power Reactor Number One facility caused the death of three people in Idaho Falls and in 1966 A partial melt occurred in the core of the Fermi Unit 1 nuclear power plant in Michigan.

However, if Westinghouse was one of the first companies to use this practice, the example that is considered a paradigm of the phenomenon greenwash It is the oil company Chevron and its advertising campaign ‘People Do’ (People do it). A blue butterfly flies across the television screens of millions of viewers. The voice of the narrator explains Chevron’s program to save this endangered species, and asks the audience rhetorically: “Do people do anything to make a gram of beauty survive?” The narrator brings the company slogan into the consumer’s home saying ‘People do it.

What viewers couldn’t see is the fact that the endangered species of blue butterfly from the ad was nesting high up on a hill, on the confines of one of the largest oil wells in the United States, in Los Angeles, where it was found. Chevron’s El Segundo refinery.

The company created more than 20 ads of the same style, showcasing Chevron, one of the most polluting companies on the planet, as a green and respectful company, with a team that “takes care of the planet and loves bears, butterflies and foxes” .

In his book The Corporate Planet, ecology and politics in the age of globalization (1997), Joshua Karliner defends how this type of advertising is very effective in disguising companies that are actually enemies of the ecosystem as environmentalists. It is a practice designed to manipulate the perception of both the consumer and the shareholders, and its ultimate goal is solely to increase sales.

Greenpeace redefined this concept as a situation in which “multinational companies conserve and expand their markets by acting as friends of the environment and leaders in the effort to eradicate poverty.” For his part, the entrepreneur, environmentalist and activist Paul Hawken has defined greenwashing as “the construction of an emerald global city in which all things radiate a green hue that makes the consumer feel good who buys happily while humming the favorite tunes of their companies”.

How is this ’emerald city’ built? Some of the pioneers of modern public relations in the first decades of the 20th century were the ones who established the rules of the game; Advertisers such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays (employees of multinationals such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil) were dedicated to preventing the US government’s efforts to create environmentally-protective legal measures, as well as reversing a growing general antipathy towards big companies.

Lee and Bernays began to distort the image of certain environmental issues from the moment one of the books that is considered a catalyst for the modern environmental movement was published: Silent springby Rachel Carson. In that bombing of 1962, Carson exposed in a contrasting and prophetic way the dire ecological impact of the massive use of agricultural pesticides such as DDT. Written with the aim of shaking up citizens and pushing the government and industry to take action, the book planted the seeds of an awareness that exploded a few years later, with the street demonstrations of the first Earth Day, in April 1970. The classic of ecological awareness is today considered one of the most influential popular science books.

In response to Silent Spring, the Chemical Producers Association (CMA) hired E. Bruce Harrison, a publicist dedicated exclusively to environmental information. Working with the advertising representatives of companies like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Shell and others, he devised a strategy to combat Carson and the impact of his book. E. Bruce Harrison (and later his company, popularly known as EBH) soon went on to lead the fight of the North American petrochemical industry against the environmental movement and has continued in that task to date. Thus, in your effort to minimize the effect of Silent spring, the advertising executive has published his own ‘green wash’ guide: Going Green: How to communicate your company’s environmental commitment (Going green: how to communicate the environmental commitment of your company).

Throughout his career, E. Bruce Harrison and his acolytes developed environmental advertising techniques for critical situations that have later been widely used in the industry: appealing to consumer emotion, exposing scientific misinformation, sending mass letters to consumers. media and opinion leaders, and paying doctors and scientists ‘objective’ advocates of agrochemicals.

Several months after that first Earth Day, in December 1970, the North American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born, which approved the Clean Air, Clean Water and Protected Species laws for the purpose of provide legal coverage and regulate practices related to the environment. In 1990, the movement became international, mobilizing up to 200 million people.

In return, the global impact of Earth Day is such that many companies are attracted by its large scale to seek economic return from the emergence of green consumption: the idea that the consumer wants products that are respectful of the environment. Thus, paradoxically, companies such as Monsanto, Peabody Coal or Georgia Power have ended up sponsoring Earth Day events since 1990, a classic example of greenwashing.

About 40 years after Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwash, the neighbor of the municipality of Sugar Loaf, in the state of New York, has explained his disappointment at the use of this word by the corporate machinery that has adopted the word for advertising or pseudomarketing purposes, and that has influenced citizens more interested in style than in the sacrifice necessary to achieve sustainability.

In one of the last available interviews with the author, in a provincial digital newspaper, Westerveld regretted that every time he read greenwashing He can’t help but think: “Bullshit!” In his opinion, every genuine effort to preserve the planet is quickly appropriated by some corporate sales team, eager to identify the next trend so they can sell their new products. This is why so many companies claim the “green label”, ensuring that a certain product or service is really green, when in reality “they are simply doing it. greenwashing” .

“Who scrutinizes which label is real and which is not?” Asks Westerveld. There you have all these young consumers, eager to put on a designer T-shirt made with 100% natural cotton, imported from China, or to taste an ‘organic product grown on an artificial farm, or to drive a’ green car or houses built with materials that they require continued deforestation, the use of more steel, and ultimately the consumption and depletion of more and more of the Earth’s limited resources. “Americans still believe that buying something can solve any problem. When environmental responsibility becomes a form of expression, out of sheer fashion, it is dangerous.”


Source: El Diario – El Diario by www.eldiario.es.

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