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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 putatively environmentally unsound practises. The term first arose in the early 1990s (an early use of the word appeared as the title of an article in the 1991 March or April issue of Mother Jones magazine). (cf Wikipedia)

As it becomes more evident that it is possible to be more sustainable – or make more sustainable products – and keep a business running, some people are seeing this as a marketing opportunity. Simply calling a product green – whether it is or not is irrelevant – can increase sales. So some companies are looking for ways to stretch the truth about the environmental friendliness of their products. That way, they can remain competitive without really having to do all the hard work.

Home Depot Case Study

This information comes from At Home Depot, How Green Is That Chainsaw? by Clifford Krauss (25 June 2007).

As part of preparations for a recent advertising campaign, Home Depot asked its supplies to suggest which of their products were “green.” There were over 60,000 submissions including:

  • a plastic-handled paint brush (because no trees were killed to make it);
  • a wood-handled paint brush (because no petroleum was used to make plastic);
  • an electric chainsaw (because it didn't run on gas);
  • a bug zapper (because it didn't use poisonous chemicals); and
  • “Manufacturers of paint thinners, electrical screwdrivers and interior overhead lights claimed similar bragging rights simply because their plastic or cardboard packaging was recyclable.”

In the end, only about 1 in 25 of the submissions were accepted as “green” by Home Depot.

Some experts say even that very tight selection was insufficiently restrictive. But, for instance, it took Home Depot personnel weeks just to identify an appropriate local standard for house paint toxicity – because there are so many standards around. In the end, they had to make a decision.

And even the most widely accepted standards can have problems. For example, the very well known EnergyStar standards do not include important factors like:

  • how much energy was needed to make the product;
  • whether the product uses recycled materials; and
  • whether the product can be recycled at its end of life.

And let's not forget the broader impacts of a product. Home Depot is also considering a rug that is made of corn fibre instead of nylon because the natural fibre is (allegedly) a green product. But raising corn requires tractors that run on gasoline, and that corn cannot then be sold as food, and the processing of the corn requires the use of chemicals that seem to be building up in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, when you look at the entire product life cycle it may well be that nylon is actually the greener alternative. Until you do the analysis, you just don't know.

Exercise for the reader What questions does this article suggest? What opportunities do you see for engineering designers to contribute, practically and politically? What ethical concerns do you see here? How can they be managed to everyone's benefit?

See Also

design/greenwashing.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)