Greenwashing & Corporate Motives

This past Friday I delivered The 2010 Edwards Family Lecture in Business Ethics at the University of Saskatchewan, on the topic “Greenwashing and Corporate Moral Motivation.”

The talk was basically whether corporate motives matter in making an accusation of greenwashing. Though the term is sometimes used more loosely, I think greenwashing is best understood as an attempt (usually in advertising) for a company to highlight a relatively minor environmental accomplishment as a way of distracting viewers from a poor environmental track record. Greenwashing is a problem, because it can to a certain extent mislead or manipulate viewers. But certainly there’s nothing unique about greenwashing in that regard; other forms of “puffery” in advertising is more-or-less taken for granted. I think that a big part of what actually explains people’s strong negative reaction to greenwashing is lies in the hypocritical element of greenwashing: how could a company like that dare to brag about this puny environmental accomplishment?

There’s a problem, though, if a charge of greenwashing imputes a particular motive to the company involved (typically, I think, the accusation is that the motive for greenwashing is an interest in distracting from something or covering something up.) This is a potential problem because accurate attributions of corporate motives is difficult. Some people are entirely skeptical about the very existence of corporate motives: some people think corporations are merely legal fictions, and legal fictions don’t have minds, let alone motives. I’m not quite so skeptical about the existence of motives: I think it’s at least possible that corporations, as complex entities in their own right, can have motives (and intentions and interests and desires). But there remain two problems. Even if corporate motives can exist, it’s still possible that in particular situations there actually was no corporate motive per se: it might just be that a corporate decision was arrived at, but that it was supported by dozens of important internal stakeholders for dozens of different reasons. The other problem is a problem of knowledge: even if a corporate motive exists, it may be terribly difficult for outsiders (and sometimes even insiders) to figure out what it is.

Where does that leave us? My skepticism about divining corporate motives is not intended as a way to let greenwashers off the hook. The fact that corporate motives can be hard to discern doesn’t at all mean that we shouldn’t be on guard against companies trying to pull the wool over our eyes. But it might well mean that it’s smarter just to focus on present behaviour, good or bad, and do our best to call attention to environmental claims that are either false, or far less impressive than the companies making them want them to seem.

(Thanks to both the Edwards Family and the Department of Philosophy at USask for the invitation & the hospitality.)

3 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    It will be interesting to see where the public perception of greenwashing goes from here. The greenwashers might argue that they are sincere, because their intentions are the crucial point here. In the area of corporate manipulation, the fueling of a fire of doubt and confusion has been shown to be a consistent strategy. Corporations have been more successful sewing confusion which increases doubt, for many years now, before greenwashing was even used as a word.


  2. Anonymous on

    I have a couple of problems with the term “greenwashing” and most important of these is how it is applied.

    The term as you have applied it to FORD in the past was a bit misleading. While it was true that FORD had a reputation for gas guzzling vehicles, the most criticism was leveled at their truck line. There is a need for heavy trucks and SUVs. A Toyota RAV gets better mileage than does my F-series but it could never haul the stuff that I haul.

    To accuse FORD of being disingenuous when they released the Escape Hybrid (truly a step in the right direction for SUVs) is a slap in the face of progress. What would the 80,000 F-series users like me do if FORD quit producing heavy duty trucks?

    The Escape Hybrid produced in a a remodeled plant was a movement toward environmentalism. We should be encouraging those steps rather than creating new pejorative terms to put them down.

  3. […] reasons, and corporate motives, are complex things. Given the complexity of corporate decision making, sometimes there’s no single reason why a […]

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