Greenwashing 2.0

30th September 2013 By: Eric L. Lane

From the birth of the environmental movement in the 1960s, and through its growth over the last several decades, environmental marketing has never been far behind.  Since at least as early as the 1970s, advertisers and marketers have sought to capitalize on consumer concerns about the environment by touting environmentally friendly aspects of products, services, and business practices.  This is no surprise, as the group of consumers whose purchasing decisions are influenced by the environmental impact of the products and services they buy has grown to become a large constituency.

Typically, environmental marketing claims took one of two forms, general corporate spin or specific product attributes.  Companies often portrayed themselves as responsible stewards of the environment by trumpeting their sustainable business practices.  In many instances, the environmental advertising was associated with particular goods for individual consumers, such as energy efficient appliances or biodegradable diapers.

Inevitably, some of the environmental marketing claims proved false or misleading as rhetoric was not put into practice or products failed to deliver the advertised benefits.  Green skepticism was one result, and in 1986 environmentalist Jay Westervelt coined the term “greenwashing” to describe marketing or PR intended to deceive consumers into believing that a company is practicing environmentally friendly policies and procedures.  Another response was enforcement against greenwashers, and later, new regulations directed to environmental advertising.

As government agencies and non-governmental organizations investigated, studied, and combated greenwashing activity, the focus was on the existing flow of false or misleading information by companies directed to individual consumers.  Indeed, for many years nearly all instances of greenwashing involved business-to-consumer (“B-to-C”) scenarios.

But times have changed.  Concern about climate change has settled into the public consciousness, and the environmental movement has produced an important offshoot, sometimes called the “clean tech revolution.  We are now in the midst of this clean tech revolution—an unprecedented period of sustained innovation and commercialization of a diverse array of green technologies.  Over the past decade, substantial and sustained investment in the development and deployment of green technologies—particularly renewable energy generation technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuels—has significantly grown the green economy.  Solar panels are now nearly as prevalent as green household cleaners.

The clean tech boom has given rise to a much more complex stream of green commercial marketing activity.  Much of the green economy today involves business-to-business (“B-to-B”) deals, with clean tech companies marketing their green branded equipment, products, and services to developers, utilities, and retailers.  It is now just as common for large manufacturers like Vestas to market wind turbines to commercial consumers such as utilities and developers as it is for Clorox to market green cleaners to households.  As clean tech has become big business, green marketing has expanded beyond advertising of products to individual consumers into B-to-B communications regarding clean tech products and services to green commercial consumers.

This Article argues that this period of unprecedented clean tech innovation requires a new paradigm for thinking about greenwashing.  Specifically, it is essential that the paradigm shift from almost exclusive focus on B-to-C environmental advertising directed to individual green consumers to an expanded and more nuanced view that also includes B-to-B representations made to commercial consumers.  This new paradigm would define greenwashing expansively to include any false or misleading claim regarding the environmental benefit of a product, service, or business practice.  Its analysis should not be limited to cases brought by or on behalf of individual consumers, but should also contemplate legal actions by and on behalf of green commercial consumers. Changing the greenwashing paradigm in this way will reflect the commercial realities of the clean tech revolution, and will provide the broader vantage point necessary to identify instances of greenwashing and understand its prevalence and effects.

Part I of this Article provides a brief historical overview of environmental marketing claims, reviews the traditional paradigm greenwashing cases brought in response to such claims, and summarizes the scholarly reaction to the greenwashing phenomenon.  Part I also places environmental marketing in context by observing that until the 1990s, there was minimal commercialization of green technologies and essentially no clean tech industry.  Part II describes the advent of the clean tech revolution and explains the complex commercial ecosystem it has created.  Part II also argues that the maturation of the clean tech industry, which brought many commercial players interacting in B-to-B relationships, provided fertile ground for the emergence of the new greenwashing paradigm cases.  In Part III, the Article discusses these new paradigm cases that have accompanied the clean tech boom, catalogs the common types of cases that have arisen under the new paradigm, and describes the importance of these cases.  This Part also takes note of the greenwashing “blind spot” in the media, research organizations, and commentators, none of which have focused attention on green commercial consumer cases.  Part IV discusses the implications of the new paradigm cases, recommends some areas of inquiry for future research, and suggests some policies for monitoring and combating the new paradigm cases.

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