green English

It will all come out in the greenwash

For most of human history, we weren’t sufficiently numerous or powerful to do enough damage to warrant an environmental movement. Then a series of developments – among them industrialisation, overpopulation, widespread pollution, nuclear power, and climate change – began to demonstrate dramatically how fragile is our stewardship of ‘Spaceship Earth’.

These developments have lent increasing momentum to green issues: more and more, we recognise the importance of sustainable living. Many businesses have taken to greentailing (green + retailing) because it’s good not only for the planet but also for business. Those that are considered ethical can trade on that reputation, whereas companies that are associated with thoughtless or destructive environmental behaviour can find it difficult to rescue their image even after altering their practices or their names.

Some companies are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits. This has given rise to the term greenwash – formed by analogy with whitewash. Just as whitewash indicates greater concern with appearance than with what lies beneath, and indicates attempts to cover up incriminatory facts, so greenwash refers to superficial activities intended to show concern about the environment and distract from damage being done.

As Kerry Maxwell points out in her BuzzWord article, greenwash has been around since the early 1990s, and its use has spread from advertising contexts to political and personal ones. Some people are content to seem environmentally friendly so long as they don’t have to make decisions that hamper their lifestyle. Hence the attraction of greenwashed products and services, and the lure of eco-bling.

A lot of companies have taken to greenwashing – a recent article in the Los Angeles Times reports that the practice is rife, and rising swiftly. It’s simply too easy to give ourselves the green light to assuage our environmental guilt. Whenever we shop, we are confronted with a range of products whose eco-friendliness varies greatly. Compromises are inevitable, but sooner or later it will all come out in the wash.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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