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When Green is Only Skin Deep

The government must stop false advertising in environmental marketing

By Adam R. Gold

Last Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and the celebration showed that if there’s one thing America can do, it’s take something sacred and stamp signs of corporate profiteering all over it. In California, Chevron and PG&E, two of the state’s biggest polluters, headlined an Earth Day event. Toymaker F.A.O. Schwartz used the eco-holiday to push its line of Greenzys plush dolls made from soy fibers, while companies like Disney and Pottery Barn are giving away baseball caps and plants. Even the National Park system tried to get in on the act, offering free admission. Okay, that last one actually makes sense.

The corporate hypocrisy is aimed at wooing consumers, who, in spite of everything, still seem to care about the environment. Even in this recession, four out of five consumers actively target “green” products, even if they are more expensive. Exactly why they care is still open to debate—a recent study at the University of Minnesota showed that people are more likely to buy eco-conscious goods in public rather than online, suggesting that buying green may be a way of exerting status.

Unlike consumers, corporations have no reason at all to care about the environment, and if they are publicly held companies, it would actually be criminal to put environmental concerns ahead of their bottom line. Free-market stalwarts argue that consumer preference for green products will cause corporations to adopt their own high standards of environmental ethics. However, if many consumers care more about the perception of being green than about actually making eco-conscious decisions, these corporations will simply promote their products as green, regardless of whether their environmental record warrants it. Until the average consumer has enough time and energy to verify all the claims they see on packaging (read: never), corporations will continue to disingenuously promote their products as eco-friendly, a technique known as “greenwashing.”

Broadly speaking, greenwashing refers to marketing campaigns by major corporations to rebrand themselves as eco-friendly, even though their practices continue to hurt the environment.Though it has increased in recent years, greenwashing is as old as the environmental movement itself.  In 1969, even before the first Earth Day, public utilities spent eight times more money on advertising their reductions in pollution than they did on the anti-pollution research itself.

The biggest greenwashers in recent decades have been energy companies. In the 1980s, Chevron’s “People Do” campaign included a series of TV ads featuring the company and its employees saving the world. Two years later, polls in California found that Chevron was the oil company Californians trusted most to protect the environment. Similarly, the oil supplier BP (formerly British Petroleum) launched a $200 billion green rebranding campaign in 2000, which included the slogan “beyond petroleum” and adopted a new green, yellow, and white sunburst logo. However, a study by Greenpeace in 2009 found that BP only allocated 6.8 percent of its funds to non-fossil-fuel energy sources.

Oil companies’ biggest eco-crime is pollution, most of which is still legal despite being a textbook example of an economic externality. In most cases, society—not the polluter—has to pay the long-term cleanup costs. But if Uncle Sam won’t make certain kinds of pollution illegal, it can certainly cut down on false advertising. The Federal Trade Commission tried to set guidelines for environmental marketing in 1998, which included a section that allowed the agency to act when companies were misrepresenting their business practices through advertising. Sadly, the FTC filed no complaints against greenwashers during the Bush years, and by February of this year, only seven have been filed under the Obama administration. However, the guidelines are currently under review, which will ideally yield stronger restrictions against polluters.

Rather than simply expose fraudulent advertising, however, the federal government should also set up a national labeling system for products so that consumers don’t have to do the hard work on their own. Ideally, every product would be stamped with a list of its component materials and their origins, like nutrition facts for manufactured goods. More practically, the government could set up several certification boards in industries from lumber to consumer electronics which identify products made using sustainable practices.

Greenwashing has yet to be a problem for universities, but the temptation is surely growing as environmental rankings proliferate. Harvard scores very highly in the environmental rankings of colleges, although a recent Crimson article found that the University may have trouble meeting its goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent. Additionally, Harvard sometimes falsely lumps its successes in related areas under the heading of environmentalism: For example, the HUDS sustainable dinner last Thursday was probably the only Earth Day-related event most Harvard students witnessed, whereas wildlife conservation and global warming are arguably much more important issues to Massachusetts. Ideally, Harvard will continue to lead by example in having high environmental aspirations matched by concrete actions to save the planet.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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