Lauren Rabaino

If you’re a casual reader of national media publications then you are probably fairly aware of the recent buzz being generated about issues like sustainability and global warming. Even for us sustainability nerds, the constant onslaught of cookie-cutter articles and Leonardo DiCaprio’s lambasting about the environment can frankly get, well, annoying.

But even worse is the deceptive marketing used primarily by oil and utility companies to appear “environmentally sensitive.” This is known as greenwashing.

Taken directly from the all-knowing Wikipedia, “greenwash” (a portmanteau of green and whitewash) is a pejorative term that environmentalists and other critics use to describe the activity of giving a positive public image to what are actually environmentally unsound practices.

The term greenwashing was originally confined to describing misleading instances of pseudo-environmental advertising. But lately, as corporations’ efforts to portray themselves as environmentally virtuous have diversified and proliferated, so have the charges of greenwashing. The term is now used to refer to a wider range of corporate activities, including certain instances of environmental reporting, event sponsorship, the distribution of educational material and the creation of front groups.But regardless of the strategy employed, the main objective of greenwashing is the same: to give consumers and policymakers the impression that the company is taking the necessary steps to manage its ecological footprint.

This is an important line of thought. Are we accepting alternatives to fossil fuels that are genuinely viable, or just well-promoted? Are huge energy subsidies involved? Do these companies stand to gain regardless of whether their investments succeed or not? It will be fantastic if this all works out to be for the greater environmental good, but we don’t have time to waste with more public relations mischief.

Here are some of the problems with greenwashing:

Most obviously, greenwashing is misleading. It attempts to deceive us, making us think that a company with an awful environmental track record actually has a great one. Not all environmental advertising is dishonest, of course, but any advertising that can legitimately be considered greenwashing is dishonest.

Greenwashing could result in consumer and regulator complacency. If one corporation in a particular company gets away with greenwashing, other corporations will follow suit, thereby creating an industry-wide illusion of environmental sustainability, rather than sustainability itself. This illusion of environmental sustainability could have dire social consequences as consumers will continue to use products and support companies that further environmental degradation and reduce the quality of living conditions for future generations.

Greenwashing may also engender cynicism. If consumers come to expect self-congratulatory ads from even the most environmentally backward corporations, this could render consumers skeptical of even sincere portrayals of legitimate corporate environmental successes. Well-meaning companies – companies committed to responsible environmental behavior – have every reason to be critical of companies that greenwash.

Shell and British Petroleum are two of the largest oil producers in the world and are quickly emerging as leaders in the world of renewable energy. Shell is one of the top five wind power generators in the United States, while BP plans to produce 550 megawatts of wind energy in 2007, one-sixth of the total projected US wind energy output, according to the Boston Globe. Yet I’m wondering if the big oil companies have suddenly found eco-religion, or if the recent developments are simply an attempt to greenwash away their climate-spoiling sins of their past.

On one hand, I feel that any effort to develop renewables should be embraced, regardless of who is footing the bill or what their motives may be. On the other hand, the planned 550 megawatts worth of BP installations seem like a drop in the oil barrel for a company netting $20 billion in profits every year (in Alaska alone the company plans to invest $5 billion in the next five years on oil exploration and production). And while their planned installations may account for one-sixth of all wind energy production in the United States, they will amount to less than 1 percent of worldwide wind energy production in 2007.

Instead of commenting spitefully at the irony of an oil company trying to help the environment, maybe I should be encouraging them in their move. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight and at least they are changing, right? If the oil companies have any sort of long-term vision for their businesses, they will have to diversify and have new energy products ready when oil eventually dries up; big oil will be forced to go green if it’s the only alternative to no oil.

I get some minor consolation from knowing that one day petroleum won’t be the cheapest form of energy. Like many others, I’m just waiting for a definitive shift in the energy industry, a moment when a brilliant start-up comes and shakes things up, much like the PC revolution back in the early ’80s. Until then, supply and demand will dictate what product the big energy corporations sell and at what prices. I just hope that by then it isn’t already too late.

Ben Eckold is a business senior with a minor in sustainable environments. Starting next week, “The Green Spot” will run every in this section every Tuesday. The column features a variety of writers on environmental and sustainability issues.

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