Student - May 14, 2009


If a business tries to project a green image that is only skin-deep, it’s called greenwashing – a term with the same negative connotations as whitewashing. But the reality is not as black & white as that, concluded VHP student Floor Veer from her final research project. Greenwashing does at least raise consumer awareness.

A factory with flowers coming out of the chimney instead of smoke. Or soft drink cans that hang like fruit from a branch. These are two examples of greenwashing, a misleading advertising technique that makes it hard for consumers to distinguish green companies from grey ones. That’s why Veer, a student of Rural development & innovation at Van Hall Larenstein in Wageningen, set out to explore the possibilities for certifying greenwashing – an assignment from the Rural Wageningen foundation (RUW).

But when can you say that a company has ‘unjustifiably given itself a green image’? When the advertisement is not in line with the company’s policy and history, says Veer. Or when the advert is vague and irrelevant. Vagueness takes the form of terms like ‘planet-friendly packaging’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘CO2- neutral’. The latter term doesn’t tell us whether the company compensates for its emissions or doesn’t generate any. Veer: ‘There are so many terms that can mean a thousand different things. And that suits companies just fine.’

Claims are not always supported by research either, and often just one side is emphasized. An example of this is the advert in which Kermit the frog praises Ford’s new hybrid car with an adaptation of his song ‘It’s not easy being green’. In fuel consumption and emissions, this is a more eco-friendly car, but its production is still spread all over the world, which is not at all sustainable’, explains Veer. This illustrates the complexity of the issues around greenwashing. Because on the other hand, Veer adds, if the demand for hybrid cars goes up, the production process will get more efficient.

Veer observed yet another effect of greenwashing. For instance, energy companies show off about the no more than five percent green energy they produce. But 'because adverts stress this, they make consumers aware that green energy is desirable. And the rising turnover at organic supermarkets is mainly thanks to the attention paid by the major supermarkets to organic food.’

The chances of success for certification of greenwashing are slim, thinks Veer. ‘Greenwashing expresses an ambition. It’s a big investment to go green, even to a small extent. And anyway, do consumers want to know how sustainable a product really is? If I’ve just bought a hybrid car, I don’t want to hear that it’s less green than I think’