So what do I mean by “greenwashing” anyway? (Penn State & greenwashing part 4,320)

Back in June I started this little series on Penn State’s sustainability talk and the possibility that it’s just greenwashing. What I mean by that is whether or not Penn State’s leaders and communicators are deceiving the public into thinking that “We are” a greener, more sustainable university than “We really are.” This would all seem rather academic if two things hadn’t collided in the local sphere: Penn State’s provost Nick Jones has said that Penn State’s next strategic plan will place sustainability at its heart. He said that in the midst of recent community uproar around Penn State selling some land in Ferguson Township (start here). So I’m trying to look at what’s what, learn about where I work (Penn State’s Sustainability Institute), what I do professionally (sustainability education, policy, research and assessment), where I live and where I’m on the ballot for township supervisor (Ferguson Township), and ways to develop citizenship and ecological understanding.

Greenwashing involves deception around environmental action. According to Sourcewatch, “Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.” Oxford defines it as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Most greenwashing accusations have been levied against corporate public relations and advertising.

Besides just lying and it being a bad thing to do, why would greenwashing really matter to us? The authors at Green Economy Post pretty much nail it:

Green washing – making exaggerated environmental claims in order to curry consumer favor is one of the banes of the sustainability community. When a company that has been lauded for its environmental performance is revealed to be engaging in environmentally dangerous practices it provide skeptics with the fodder they need. Even when the claims are found to be inflated (or impossible to substantiate), credibility is lost. For a business model based on the paradigm that transparency leads to credibility, trust and ultimately market advantage, these incidents can be devastating.

It presents a credibility threat to the institution for sure. And at least as important, it threatens commitments to balancing our endeavors with environmental imperatives. As a recent study I read shows, it’s better to say nothing than engage in greenwashing [I’ll dig around for that. Check out Pease Greenwash Effect too in the mean time.] If you say you do one thing, do quite a different, and no one is accountable, then it just gives more fodder to the pro-pollution oligarchic old garde like George Will and Peter Wood (read a rebuttal to that garbage here) who have come out strongly against sustainability in higher education. No good can come of it. So we should avoid it. But how can you evaluate these things? I’m going to try to use a tool my friend Lee Ahern developed.

In Lee Ahern’s “Evaluating the Ethicality of Green Advertising: Toward an Extended Analytical Framework” in Talking Green, he cites a few cases of potentially unethical corporate “green” advertising. They include this BP ad (before the Gulf blowout) that features “animated children happily driving through a green landscape forested with gently spinning turbines. When the gas gauge gets a bit low they shun a number of dingy, gray gas stations before turning in under the green-sunburst BP logo where their car is quickly filled by a smiling green gas pump. After they drive off into the BP-logo sunset, the company’s Beyond Petroleum tagline appears.” Are there ethical problems here? Was BP engaging in some kind of disingenuous ploy, exploiting environmental values in the pursuit of market ends or using marketing values to pursue environmental ends? You can see some of this ad with some commentary on greenwashing on The Media Show.

Ahern, Chart 1: Advertising Ethicality Evaluative Map (AEEM) From Ahern, L. (2012) Evaluating the Ethicality of Green Advertising. In Talking Green. Ahern and Bortree (Eds).

Ahern created a way to think about this and evaluate such ads. I won’t go into all the details, but there are two things you need to understand.  The y axis how conscious or unconscious the advertising. If things are suggested but not explicitly claimed, then it can be difficult to know what an ad is actually saying. In the BP ad, there is no factual information presented, but rather the notion that the environment and children can exist in a happy BP world. They do in the ad. It sort of stands to reason that we can make some kind of universal statement out of the ad: Everyone would be happy in a BP-fueled world! The x axis shows whether or not the issue at hand is public. Ahern follows Herbert Blumer, saying, “A public issue…is one that is being actively engaged by opposing publics in the mass media and/or through active strategic communications campaigns.” In the case of the BP ad which is ostensibly about vehicle fuel, we can definitely see a public issue: energy. There is a ton of strategic communication, advertising, and debate about where we get our energy, how we get it, how much of it we use, its byproducts including toxic and greenhouse gas pollution, and more.

When you put these two things together, you get a potentially problematic public advertisement. We can do this with other ads and strategic communications too. And though corporations like BP, Shell, Alcoa, Wal Mart, and Apple have had their names dragged into a fray for greenwashing, we can do it with any organization. Universities included.

When my peers in communications put out ~400 sustainability-related stories annually are they misleading us? Depends on the claims in the communication. Is Penn State’s appropriation of environmental virtue unjustified? Sometimes. Is there excess bluster around sustainability? Could be, but there isn’t a lot of it to begin with. Are “they” hiding their ties to dirty business? No. It’s pretty much out in the open with fossil fuels. Are they spinning things? Maybe in some cases. Are they doing something they’d have been compelled to do by law and dressing it up as something they’ve done right? They might’ve stepped over the line with the conversion from coal to natural gas. I’ll get to that in the next post. Anyway, I’ll try to use Ahern’s tool to figure some things out. Maybe we can get him to chime in too.

[Update: I’ve sent a message asking for an email interview with Ahern.]

So in the next post, I will take a deeper but kind of unrefined look at a couple of cases—energy and investments—and see if I can get a reasonable handle on whether Penn State is greenwashing. I’ll finish that post out with some thoughts on a couple of other areas, notably waste and education, and then wrap this little endeavor up with some notes on commitment.

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