The state of our environment for present and future generations has increasingly become top of mind for a large portion of North Americans. As is often the case, the priorities of the masses are reflected in how companies promote themselves to their publics. One affect of an environmentally conscience generation is greenwashing. The Oxford English Dictionarydefines greenwash as, “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”[1]

In the marketplace, media and politics, greenwash serves several purposes including fooling environmentally conscious consumers into buying environmentally destructive products, generating positive press about a company’s environmental commitment, and resisting government environmental regulation through preemptive voluntary policies within an industry. The ultimate goal of using greenwash is to use deception to maintain the status quo of unsustainable consumption.[2]

Greenwash in marketing and public relations
Greenwash is occurring both in marketing and public relations. However, the way in which greenwash occurs differs among the professions.

Greenwash within the marketing profession is commonly used when labelling or advertising products. CBC recently did a special investigation into products that have been marketing themselves as “green”, “environmentally friendly”, “biodegradable”, “non-toxic” (the list goes on), when in fact using the products resulted in little to no environmental benefit and often caused equal or greater harm than similar products that were not using greenwash labelling.[3] One example mentioned in the program is Dawn antibacterial dish soap. The label includes pictures of seals and ducklings and proclaims the companies commitment to saving wildlife from the harmful affects of toxic oil spills. However, the soap includes an ingredient called triclosan that is toxic to wildlife.[4]

Greenwash within the profession of public relations takes a slightly different angle. The concept is the same as discussed above, but it is more focused on using a misleading or over-exaggerated commitment to environmental improvement or sustainability to shape the reputation of an organization.[5] An example would be if an oil company were a sponsor of an event like Earth Day or a seller of heavy-duty trucks hosted an active transportation celebration.

Theory of greenwash
Greenwash is a dishonest and misleading promotional practice. Tactics like greenwash may be rooted in the normative theory of ethical egoism. Ethical egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right that it maximize one's self-interest.[6] In this case of greenwash, a corporation may see the linking of their environmental damaging product or service to pro-environment events, jargon or imagery morally right because of the resulting financial benefit.

[1] The Green Life: Greenwashing 101. Retrieved on October 19, 2012 from

[2] Greenpeace: Greenwashing. Retrieved on October 18, 2012 from

[3] CBC: 10 worst household products for greenwashing. Retrieved on September 16, 2012 from


[5]Strasser, K. (2011). Myths and Realities of Business Environmentalism: Good Works, Good Business or Greenwash? Cheltenharn: Gloucester.Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. pp.168.

[6] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Egoism. Retrieved on October 19, 2012 from