A First Peak Behind the Curtain of Greenwashing
Frank Cetera

Clockwise From Left: Clorox Greenworks Wipes—the only Clorox product line to reflect ecological considerations; BP’s logo—visually sunny and green; Nestle's bird nest logo—can any company selling bottled water be green? Graphic: Frank Cetera

“People, Planet, Profits” seems to be rolling off everyone’s tongues these days when folks talk about “green” and “sustainable” business practices. It’s the triple-bottom-line in case you haven’t heard, and it’s a way to measure the success of an organization through social, ecological and economic indicators. Unfortunately, these are all completely unregulated pieces of terminology through which an organization or business can create a fictional PR-related “greenwashing” nightmare.

Without regulation or even independent oversight, terms such as “green” can be used as loosely as the user intends, or as unwittingly as the public allows with no recourse for action or access to the truth. A prime example comes from the food justice world and the use of the word “organic.” Due to the

CNY’s Green Business Standards Certification Program

The Green Business Standards Certification Program for CNY is currently under development through the Small Business Development Center at Onondaga Community College. The program is working with charter businesses to finalize the standards, while certifying this first group of businesses which have proven their innovation and commitment to our community. The program’s strength and legitimacy results from being an “earned and not bought” certification. Third party verification will be required at the business’s physical location; a self-assessment and check will not buy a stamp of approval. Local oversight of the program and standards will address seven areas: Organizational Commitment and Operations, Waste Reduction & Recycling, Environmentally Responsible Purchasing, Pollution Prevention, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Storm Water Management & Efficient Water Use, and Transportation & Travel. The program will ensure long-reaching internal institutional change by requiring policy and performance measurement initiatives in addition to programs and actions.

rising popularity of organic food in the 1970s, and the ensuing decades long free-for-all over labeling of foods as “organic,” the USDA published the Certified Organic standards in 2002.

Today however, a business can claim to be green because it has changed its light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescents, while still burning those bulbs on an unregulated basis. If the business or organization has not made conscious sustainability efforts in other sectors of its operations, you can guess the sole motivation behind greening efforts is simply to save money. In fact, this was exactly the situation when New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing in 1986. He observed the start of the hotel industry's practice of promoting guest towel reuse in hotel rooms to help save the environment, while not making any associated effort at the common practice of waste recycling.

Perhaps worst of all, a business may have done nothing to “green” its operations except use pretty packaging with earthy colors and graphics, thus perpetrating a fraud among consumers. Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is updating its “Green Guides” (16 C.F.R. Part 260) which will now provide administrative interpretations of law as it relates to environmental advertising. These are not actual rules, but they may result in civil action if deceptive practices are revealed.

In its simplest manifestation, greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. One need look no further than the perpetrators of the largest fossil fuel related environmental disaster in our history –the Deepwater Horizon oil and gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico – to see how BP has given us a prime example. BP has for years been cloaking its fossil fuel related activities and money grabbing business tactics through a slick updated logo and a name reconstruction. The pretty green and yellow stylized flower/sun design connotes lush living things and solar energy; BP now stands on its own as the company name – no longer referring to British Petroleum, but to the PR campaign “Beyond Petroleum.” Both draw attention away from increased oil and gas operations towards meager solar and wind investments.

Although many intricate questions still exist as to the qualifications of a business as being green, it is common agreement that it takes more than just an energy efficient building or a product made with 75% recycled content. The operational policies and consistency of a business within a green (i.e. LEED) certified building should be considered, as well as the social commitment to staff, employees and community. Looking beyond the surface of the word green means holding a deep respect and personal responsibility to all components of a business, even if they only indirectly result in changes to the traditional bottom line of profit. We need to take a multi-generational approach to our surroundings and not just look at how many recycled-plastic-content-gadgets-off-the-boat-from-China can be sold at the flea market this weekend.

Frank specializes in green business initiatives as a Certified Business Advisor with the Small Business Development Center at Onondaga Community College. He currently leads the development of a set of green business standards for Central NY.