Posts tagged “greenwashing”

The World Without Them

Rob Walker writes about Fiji bottled water claiming to be a green company, without using the word greenwashing anywhere in the piece. Fiji is certainly not alone in trying to brand itself as the opposite of what many believe it really is. Personally, I’ve been appalled at the TV ads for Arrowhead’s Eco-Shape Bottle and Scott’s Water Smart grass seed.

If you’re going to drink bottled water and if you’re going to have a lawn, definitely choose an option that consumes fewer resources, but as a consumer I find it manipulative to position those products as being eco-anything, when the core behavior they are asking us to perform is probably something we should stop doing entirely. As a strategy consultant, they have my sympathy, and my respect for not simply ignoring a big cultural story that challenges their key offering.

Consider this week the news that GM may sell or close the Hummer brand. If they sell it, there will be someone else trying to sell a product that (at least in term of meaning, if not actual impact) tends to be horrifyingly un-green.

Should Arrowhead, Fiji, Scotts, and Hummer simply go away? Obviously the leaders of those businesses have a fiscal responsibility to keep making money, but how much can they redefine or reframe their brands and their offerings?

Greenwashing the streets

Springwise tells us about ads that “clean” the streets.

[Using] high-pressure cleaning machines to wash brands, logos and adverts onto dirty pavements…the SAS team blasts the stencil with water and steam on dirty walls, roads, pavements or even road signs…Nothing but water and steam are used, and it’s all perfectly environmentally friendly and legal, SAS stresses. …”[W]e wanted to apply a technique that was not just eye-catching and effective but also friendly to the environment. What could be more natural than water?”

But wasting water is hardly environmentally friendly! And steam requires fuel to produce. This sort of claim is too easy for anyone to make and is too often unscrutinized, like the folks at Springwise who reiterated the company’s hollow verbiage without challenge.

Green? Ennh, problem solved. Almost? Um, not quite.


is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government or even a non-government organisation to sell a product, a policy or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.

Frankly, after some talks (more of the same stuff we’ve been hearing for a while) at the recent IDSA Shift conference I feel like designers and other eco-do-gooders are as guilty of greenwashing as the supposed evil corporate fat cats. We face a barrage of examples that are dramatically missing the real details. If you want to make the case that we need to solve the world’s problems, that’s one thing. If you want to make the case that design and designers are solving these problems, that’s another.

The barriers to innovation and change are political, financial, cultural, not a lack of smarts, gumption, or whizbang know-how.

Lifestraw should be familiar to many.
But as our friend Dina Mehta pointed out in a conversation last year in Bombay, the real problem is how to get people in rural areas to understand that water contains invisible poisons that they must avoid. Based on her work with and awareness of India’s rural population, she saw this as the bigger challenge.

But Lifestraw (and others like it) are presented as a fait accompli.

How many times have you seen some innovative design for a homeless shelter? Low ecological footprint, low cost, easy put up and take down, etc. Wonderful. Well, why do we still have homeless folks sleeping on the street? Oh, because what municipality is going to allow a built encampment? Let alone spend money and give land away for homeless people to live in. That’s a huge political challenge. I’m not suggesting the real problem is homelessness, but the real problem is how to get your solution adopted. But no one wants to talk about that.

Similarly, designers create something but emphasize that it’s biodegradable, as if that solves everything. But it doesn’t. Things that degrade leave material behind. If plastic bags biodegrade, you[‘ll have something left behind. We like our pretty graphics with ugly stinky machinery turning into happy flowers in gentle meadows, but that’s not really what happens. Biodegrade is an oversimplification that ignores some real consequences. The problem isn’t solved and presenting a solution implying that it is solved is the form of greenwashing that I’m getting fed up with.

You could make a similar point with claims (like those made by presenters at RISD) that “corn is renewable.” Ask Michael Pollan about the problems with corn.

The fact is that there’s a moral, ethical, technical, environmental, and social calculus beyond our ability to manage. How does one decide where to look at a problem and a potential solution. We can’t agree on paper vs. plastic or to-go cup vs. ceramic. This is Tenner-level complexity.

Eco-eager designers do their efforts a disservice but oversimplifying or denying this complexity. By misleading through omission, they echo the institutions they claim to be fighting against.


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