‘Greenwashing’ Leaves a Stain of Distortion

Geoffrey Johnson is program coordinator of the Green Life, a nonprofit environmental organization.

The launching of the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid this fall marks an auto industry first: the coupling of a hybrid electric engine, containing the most energy-efficient fuel system available, with an SUV, the least efficient class of passenger vehicle.

Conscious of the symbolism of its innovation, Ford made the Escape Hybrid the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar environmental ad campaign titled “The Greening of the Blue Oval.” Printed on glossy, pullout inserts in Time, National Geographic, Mother Jones and other publications, the ads declare, “Finally, a vehicle that can take you to the very places you’re helping to preserve.”

Ford certainly could use a touch of green. The company’s gas-guzzling lineup -- featuring the Explorer (the bestselling SUV), the Excursion (the biggest) and the F-150 (“Built Ford Tough”) -- has been a source of pride and profit for Ford. But it hasn’t been good for the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency recently found that Ford Motor Co. had the worst fleetwide fuel economy -- a truer gauge of an automaker’s commitment to the environment than whether or not it produces a hybrid -- of any major U.S. auto manufacturer for the fifth consecutive year. The Model T got better gas mileage than the average Ford vehicle today.

Is the Escape Hybrid capable of driving Ford from laggard to leader? Hardly. The company expects to sell only 20,000 annually, or 0.5% of its total sales. Ford has offered no guarantees that it will boost supply even if already high demand for hybrids climbs higher. And even if more of the hybrids were on the road, the environmental effect wouldn’t be huge: Though decisively better in city driving, the Escape Hybrid gets only two miles a gallon better highway mileage than the nonhybrid Escape, according to the EPA.


The expected revenues from the Escape Hybrid certainly don’t justify its advertising budget: So why is Ford spending so much to promote its new SUV?

It’s a clear-cut case of “greenwashing.” Ford hopes to mold a public perception that Ford has gone green, that the company is a model of corporate responsibility. Ford -- and CEO Bill Ford, who calls himself an environmentalist -- are popular targets of environmental activists. By hyping its hybrid and winning kudos from former critics, the company hopes to turn a token of environmentalism into a publicity pot of gold.

Ford certainly didn’t invent greenwashing. The Escape Hybrid is just the latest incarnation of a pervasive business phenomenon. Shell has spent big money on ad space romanticizing its relationship with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, to which the Shell Foundation has donated money. But that can’t gloss over the fact that Shell drills for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, where the sanctuary is located. What’s more, global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is a leading threat to coral reefs worldwide.

Pacific Lumber, an infamous logger of Northern California’s redwood stands, has rechristened itself with the pleasant sounding name Palco and has advertised its “environmental commitment” widely as part of its rebranding. What it hasn’t done is stop clear-cutting.


No company has gone to such great lengths to project a green energy as energy giant BP. In 2000, a year after BP ventured into renewable energy by scooping up Solarex for $45 million, it paid more than four times as much on rebranding, dropping its full name of British Petroleum to become simply BP while adopting the environmentally friendly slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and putting up billboards to promote itself as an alternative-energy company.

But has the company really moved beyond petroleum? The BP website tells it straight: “Our main activities are the exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas; refining, marketing, supply and transportation; and the manufacture and marketing of petrochemicals.”

Greenwashing is often employed by industries hoping to avoid new environmental regulation. Earlier this year, in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat a Mendocino County ballot initiative prohibiting the planting of genetically modified crops, biotechnology companies spent more than $500,000 to publicize the environmental and health benefits of genetically modified food. Last November, the Environmental Working Group acquired a leaked memo from PR firm Nichols-Dezenhall asking chemical companies to fund a $120,000 campaign to quash Californians’ support for enacting the “better safe than sorry” precautionary principle into laws governing approval of new chemicals. Some would argue that greenwashers are merely exercising their right to free speech in political advocacy and advertising. Yet the point of greenwashing is to subvert grass-roots democracy and sucker consumers with deceptive environmental advertisements that get around the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising rules.

The FTC’s rules have proved toothless when it comes to greenwashing. In 1999, the FTC took no action against the Nuclear Energy Institute, another lobbying organization, even after finding the institute guilty of false claims that nuclear power is “environmentally clean” and creates electricity “without polluting.”


And most greenwashing is more subtle, dealing in lies of omission. The claims made aren’t false exactly -- but they’re only a tiny portion of the truth. Ford is making a hybrid vehicle. BP is investing in alternative energy. But when considered in the context of the company’s other endeavors, emphasizing those things presents a highly skewed picture.

Corporate executives often lament that they would gladly supply greener products if only there were sufficient demand. It’s Economics 101, they say. But their logic neglects an essential lesson from the same course: Unless consumers have access to accurate information about products, such as their environmental and social costs, then the market will not reflect people’s true considerations. The greenwash marketing strategy helps companies preserve the status quo by attracting progressive customers whose purchasing power might otherwise be channeled to genuinely green businesses that are struggling to get a foothold in the marketplace.

In the end, the slick images and exaggerated claims of greenwashing by Ford and others divert our attention from the corporate-fueled environmental destruction taking place all around us. And that means that greenwashing, far from promoting a better world, is itself a serious environmental problem.