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Greenwashing: It happens all of the time

by: Submitted Photo, Ken Allen has significant credentials in the sustainability arena and has definite opinions about the whole topic of greenwashing.

Sustainability is a fad these days, but it is not going to fade away like the hula-hoop.

Instead, sustainability is a bandwagon that just keeps expanding, with more and more people, and more and more businesses and corporations, jumping on board.

Being 'green' is so popular, in fact, that everybody wants to be green. What's more they love to point out how green they are.

But it ain't necessarily so. Many claims to sustainability are stretches of the truth. In fact, some of them are downright falsehoods. This practice has a term: Greenwashing.

Ken Allen says watch out. Duke Castle says be forgiving. Both men have massive sustainability credentials, so a combined approach of awareness and longsuffering could well end up making companies be as green as they claim they are.

'We're in a new generation of corporations that care,' said Allen. 'Or are starting to care.'

Or they just say they care.

'Greenwashing comes from the term whitewashing,' said Allen, whose sustainability qualifications include being a nationally certified sustainability building inspector, and memberships in the U.S. Green Building Council and the Urban Land Institute.

He is also a new member of Oregon Environmental Watch, a 'buyer beware' organization, which seeks to find whether corporations are trying to delude a public which is getting firmly in sustainability's corner.

'Sometimes businesses exaggerate what they are doing pretty well,' Allen said. 'You have to look at their core value. You have to see if they present themselves in an authentic way. Is it true or is it greenwashing? Are they diluting the truth?'

Sometimes it gets worse.

'There are total mistruths,' Allen said. 'There are companies actually making misstatements. Their motivation is obviously profit driven. With buyers, 84 percent of them regard environmental crimes as more serious than inside trading.

'One major American auto maker built an eco-friendly campus, but they still build some of the worst gas guzzlers out there. A 'green' plant is not necessarily green. A lot of companies claim to be green and ecologically friendly when their practices say something completely different.'

Besides auto manufacturers, there are oil companies and even major ski resorts that were slapped onto top 10 'worst' lists for their environmental practices.

'The danger of greenwashing is that it confuses buyers and consumers,' Allen said. 'By positioning themselves in green light, corporations are tempted to pull the wool over people's eyes.'

Not that greenwashers have exactly escaped public scrutiny. On Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, there is a segment called 'America's Ten Worst Greenwashers,' and other sites are ready, willing and able to blow the whistle on hypocrites in the sustainability marketplace.

Still, the wool pulling never stops. To avoid such a fate, Allen says the public must 'think beyond the logo,' which means closely examining product labels such as 'organic,' 'natural' and 'recycle,' to see if they are really true

'The final responsibility rests with us,' Allen said. 'Not corporations. It all comes back to personal responsibility.'

Castle believes there is greenwashing. He noted one downright fib in which oil giant Exxon Mobil put out the claim that C02 by itself is not a pollutant.

'That is misinformation about global warming,' Castle said. 'C02 is not a pollutant by itself, but too much of it in the atmosphere is. Global warming is real, C02 is real, and we're changing the balance of the environment.'

But at this early stage of the sustainability movement, Castle, the founder of the Oregon Natural Step Network, is downright tolerant of people being slippery about sustainability.

'It's a tricky kind of thing,' said Castle, who is a sustainability coach for the city of Lake Oswego. 'It's not a black or white issue.'

Basically, Castle says, it is not always possible for corporate giants to be as green as they would like.

'Nike has taken heat for its social practices,' he said. 'But in their decision to use organic cotton, they found there wasn't nearly enough organic cotton in the world. The best they could do was 3 percent. They're afraid of being beaten up for greenwashing.

'There's a more complex story than there is on the surface. There's a tendency to want to label people. Good companies are doing the right thing, but they're tarnished with this label because it takes time to accomplish sustainability. I'm reluctant to label anyone because I know it takes a long time. It's also an educational process.'

Castle even has kind words for Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-Mart.

'Wal-Mart is doing some amazing things,' Castle said. 'Their CEO Lee Scott realized they were doing things that were destroying the environment.

'It's good news when the people at Wal-Mart wake up. It shows the shift is going on. Companies are becoming more sensitized to being good citizens.'

It would be wrong to consider Castle soft on greenwashing. He is being entirely practical.

'There has never been a point in time like this in our history,' he said. 'Global warming is unprecedented, and we have got to get everyone on board.'

When it comes to getting green, Castle says a helpful attitude has worked wonders for Natural Step Network in quickly establishing rapport with businesses about establishing sustainable practices.

'I want them to move forward, not demonize them,' Castle said. 'We're more interested in encouraging people to move forward, no matter where they are on sustainability.

'There are ways to move forward rather than greenwash. That's the conversation I'd rather have. That is why companies have been so open to Natural Step. We show how they can align their business with environmentalism, and businesses love it.'

To Castle, the revelation by Gov. Ted Kulongoski that sustainability would be the bedrock of state policy is a 'more exciting story' than greenwashing.'

Still, when it comes to getting green, Allen thinks there is a lot the public can do to stoke the fires of sustainability.

'We don't need to criticize,' Allen said, 'But we do need to ask, 'Is there a better way to do it?''

Allen cited the use of formaldehyde glue, which is widely used in laminants, particleboards and wood products, as an example of how public demand could result in true greening.

'It's a home product that causes cancer and creates bad indoor air,' Allen said. 'Consumers could demand it not be used, and that would level the playing field for furniture makers. As consumers, it's our job to do things like this.'

Allen thinks such consumerism could become commonplace in the future.

'Green consumerism is in its early, early, early stages,' Allen said. 'But it's already changing the way we shop and eat. It will change the way we buy durable goods, like bikes and houses.'

Yet Castle urges caution when it comes to applying the term 'greenwashing.' One reason is to let the big companies catch up with the sustainability movement. Also because greenwashing is a label that applies to all of us.

'When it comes to greenwashing, we're all bad,' Castle said. 'We need companies like Exxon Mobil to make moves now, not label them.'