Coca-Cola Charged With Greenwashing

Coca-Cola is the latest company to be charged with “greenwashing,” for having an advertising campaign that focuses on the environment.

See this story by Rod Mickleburgh, for the Globe & Mail: Council of Canadians accuses Coca-Cola of ‘greenwashing’

…Coke has been winning plaudits from some environmentalists for moves to reduce its carbon footprint, particularly at the Olympics, and the company recently introduced a plastic bottle with 30 per cent plant-based material.

But Mr. Ages charged that Coca-Cola remains a major player in the global bottled-water industry, harming Third World watersheds and resulting in huge numbers of bottles going to landfills….

The term “greenwashing” is tossed around a fair bit these days. Too much, to be honest. It seems like sometimes it’s used just to refer to any environmental claims with which a critic disagrees. But for the term to be really useful, I think it needs to be kept more narrow, more carefully targeted.

For my own explanation of what greenwashing is, see my page, What is Greenwashing, and Why is it a Problem?

“Greenwashing,” a pejorative term derived from the term “whitewashing,” was coined by environmental activists to describe efforts by corporations to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings.

So, is Coke actually guilty of greenwashing? In order for the charge of greenwashing to be apt, the charge needs to be that the company is holding up some relatively minor environmental accomplishment to cover over a poor environmental track record. Unfortunately, the G&M story is short on details. Here’s a little more info: Coke in green clothing. The accusation, in essence, revolves around Coke’s new plant-based (and implicitly environmentally-friendly) plastic bottles. I don’t know whether Coke’s track-record is sufficiently bad, over all, to make its current focus on environmental issues look like greenwashing. But here’s a question to contemplate: does it matter whether the environmental “bads” of which Coke is accused are optional, or central to its business? Bottling and selling water (in places where tapwater is safe and plentiful) is not great, environmentally. Bottled water is just intrinsically not great, environmentally. It’s not a matter of choices a company makes; it’s basic to their business. That strikes me as different (not better or worse, just different) than a company that conducts its business, whatever that is, in a particularly environmentally-unsound way. So, does being in an environmentally-unfriendly business count as having a “bad environmental track record,” in the way required to support a charge of “greenwashing?” Or should a company have to have done particularly badly from an environmental point of view?

4 comments so far

  1. CV on

    Chris,

    Your thoughts about whether such behavior is greenwashing and what it takes to support that sort of claim is interesting to me, since I’m concerned about the alignment between organization’s actions and claims. There are *lots* of different forms of hypocrisy, but they all follow the same dynamic… we are not doing who we say we are.

    The issue of whether or not an organization is trying to “look” better by doing something visibly more green, when being greener isn’t part of their actual value set, is what matters more to me for defining greenwashing. Greenwashing is about distracting, about diverting attention. Greening is about replacing old values with different ones and revising behavior to reflect these new values.

    I think you bring up an important point about whether the green-oriented improvement is related to an organization’s core business (e.g., bottling water) or to less-core operational decision (e.g., solar power or coal-fired electricity, since making green changes to process decisions is relatively easier than changing an organization’s entire business.

    Overall, it’s more unsound to be in a ‘bad’ business because no amount of process tweaks are going to repair the damage done by the central business. But, with respect, the distinction is ultimately unimportant.

    Organizations either make a commitment to become more sustainable, and then work methodically towards that, or they dress up like it’s St Patrick’s Day. That’s the important distinction: actions strive to demonstrate claims, or they don’t.

    CV Harquail
    http://AuthenticOrganizations.com

  2. Irish17020 on

    As a GREEN Designee Realtor, greenwashing is on the forefront of much that we as realtors encounter. It is our job to be educated in what a builder or corporations might claim to be green that is in fact greenwashing instead. For instance, in building, Bamboo floors are a green product but if asked by a client whether or not the flooring is actually green and has value, there are many facets to explore. One main one is where did the flooring come from? How far (gas and pollution) did it have to travel. As to bottled water issue with Coke, I don’t know all the details which is what is important before anyone just claims something is greenwashing. If they are going to bottle water because a large segment of the population buys and demands that water, that is Capitalism. It’s America and a way of life. Would we be greener and better off with no bottled water…absolutley. BUT, any efforts a corporation such as Coke, adopts to improve upon the enormous waste of the bottled water process should be looked at as just that – a MOVE TOWARD GREEN. It should be appreciated as an effort in the right direction. Were I to buy bottled water, it would be very important to me as to what the water bottle is made from and how far that water and the bottle were transported. Things like that. So in my opinion there is a long way to go to “be green” but the trip toward that end is definitely a green trail well traveled and not one to be merely dismissed as greenwashing. Have a glorious and safe holiday season and God Bless everyone’s new year round the world.

  3. Sue on

    I like the first commenter’s distinction between actions vs. claims.

    I feel like the Coke announcement is slightly greenwashing because it attempts to distract us from the majority of their business practices which are inherently bad for the environment. Drinking bottled water in a “greener” bottle is supposed to make you feel good, but the true green action would be to stop bottling and selling the darn water, especially in markets where the tap water is perfectly drinkable. However since that would clash with their shareholders’ rights to earn profit on their investments, Coke will not stop bottling water. They just want their precious green-minded customers to think nice about them.

    … don’t get me wrong, I’m as addicted to Coca-cola as the next poor teeth-rotting sod. I just don’t expect the company to try to help me justify my addiction based on a supposed “green” advantage.

  4. John Horn on

    Nice catch, Chris!

    One of my Correspondents, Michelle Burtnyk, also delivered one some pretty good findings for her article this week. Check out “Awash in Greenwash,” a piece about how, unfortunately, the Copenhagen Conference is rife with the worst kind of hypocrisy: http://bit.ly/8hKYyY.

    Also, love the fellah’s “tooth-rotting” comment…if that’s not a reason to stop drinking Coke, I don’t know if greenwashing will make a difference!

    Thanks.

    John


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