Self-Regulation of Environmental Advertising — including “Greenwashing” — in Australia

The word “greenwashing” is getting a lot of play these days. For those of you who haven’t come across it, “greenwash” is a play on “whitewash”. Whitewash is cheap white paint used to cover dirty walls in industrial and agricultural settings. Metaphorically, to whitewash something is to cover something up, to make it look pretty when there’s actually dirt underneath. Greenwash is the environmental version. These days, lots of companies want to pretty up their images when it comes to being environmentally responsible (i.e., green). That leads to a lot of claims to being green, some of which are entirely unwarranted, and that’s maddening both to those who care a lot about the environment, and those who merely care about truth in advertising. What can be done?

From the Sydney Morning Herald: No greenwash, please – industry introduces its own code

Advertisers will no longer be able to use images of nature and call themselves “environmentally friendly” unless they can back up any green claims under new proposals put forward by the advertising industry.

The new self-regulatory green marketing code – thought to be the first of its kind in the world – will also prevent companies from passing off a mandated environmental initiative as something it has voluntarily adopted.

Advertisers will have to prove that the benefits to the environment are “significant” too….

This seems like a good move.

It’s not clear, though, that what they’re talking about is really greenwashing. In some cases it may be. Not all dishonest or overreaching environmental advertising should be counted as greenwashing. Remember, greenwash, like whitewash, attempts to cover up dirt. True greenwashing is when a company with a bad environmental track record points to some meagre environmental achievement as a way of distracting consumers from the truth.

False or misleading environmental advertising of any kind ought to be stamped out (and if self-regulation works, that’s great). But our harshest moral condemnation ought to be reserved for the true greenwashers, the companies that have the gall to brag about what is, in fact, a lousy track record.

(More food for thought: The “Green” Hypocrisy: America’s Corporate Environment Champions Pollute The World. They’re a bit off-target on the definition of “greenwashing” but it’s a useful article nonetheless.)

Thanks to Development Crossing for pointing this story out, on Twitter.

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