The dark side of greenwashing
The concept of greenwashing originates from the environmental movement. As environmental disasters have intensified, it has become widely used in the public arena to challenge the way companies and institutions claim to remedy them. A collective work shows that it can now refer to our society’s structural tendency to “misthink” ecological problems.
In its original meaning, the term “greenwashing” refers to any form of misleading or fraudulent communication regarding a product or activity’s environmental impacts. Above all, it indicates a concealment strategy, by large organizations concerned with their image, of their ecological misdeeds – whether to hide them or, more subtly, to divert the public’s attention by drawing it to something else: a new recyclable packaging, a partnership with an NGO, etc.
However, the current use of the term in the media goes far beyond this definition to alert people to the failings of practices, technologies or public policies that are nevertheless presented or perceived, sometimes within the environmental movements themselves, as solutions to environmental problems. Greenwashing therefore tends to designate phenomena that are not solely related to the communication industry.
The history of the term dissemination
The neologism was coined in 1987 in the context of a critique of nuclear power, and quickly became popular, notably in a 1991 article in the American magazine Mother Jones, followed by the first “greenwashing guide” published by Greenpeace in 1992. In reaction to the growing environmental concerns since the 1960s and 1970s, large companies initially sought to sweep aside the criticism levelled at them. However, from the 1980s onwards, some companies realized this denial strategy was a dead end. They then came up with another way of dealing with criticism: by trying to exploit it. As Mathias Lefèvre has shown, the creation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in 1995 is a case in point of this strategic reorientation. Nearly 200 multinationals (including General Motors, Ford, and Monsanto) committed themselves to promoting “sustainable development”, thus suggesting they were aware of the problems and were taking charge of them.
The first greenwashing accusations denounced this recuperation strategy. The point was to underline that a slight greening of the surface only would not be enough to be part of a sustainable trajectory. Activists also wanted to avoid that cosmetic use of the environmental argument would contribute to defuse the criticism conveyed by political environmentalism, which considers that, in order to solve environmental problems, it would be necessary to deeply overhaul both our way of life and social organization.
However, in the face of a protest that calls for “changing the system, not the climate”, States have also converted to the “clawback” strategy. At such organizational level, it is no longer simply “hot air” marketing spiels that fall under the greenwashing accusation, but very concrete policies (laws, regulatory measures or financing of technologies) whose environmental benefits prove to be highly questionable – our book shows, for example, the limits of the “hunt for heat loss”, of the “carbon market”, of “ecological compensation”, of “electric mobility” or of the “digital transition”. In this case, greenwashing becomes a general move towards the “ecological transition”, which basically merely provides an alibi for fuelling problematic economic growth as such and the various forms of “business-as-usual”.
When understood as a counter-fire to the rise of political ecology and as a weapon to ward off any prospect of in-depth socio-economic change, greenwashing takes on a whole new dimension. It no longer operates only at products or firms’ level, but across entire sectors (construction, agri-food, fossil fuel industries), or even the economic system as a whole. The extent of the phenomenon shows it is not only the most polluting companies that seek to hide their wrongs, but a whole range of stakeholders, including the most sincere ones, who participate in the proliferation of false promises, half-solutions or downright failures in the face of the ecological crisis. Greenwashing even pervades areas that could be considered as effective levers for action.
For instance, while stopping the use of combustion engines, recycling or even afforestation have their place in a sustainable society, the “clean” vehicle, the “circular” economy or planting trees to compensate for CO2 emissions today turn out to be gigantic greenwashing swindles.
The fruit of which misuse?
How to account for this dreadful situation when the slightest ecological idea is so easily taken up in the public space by a profusion of practices and discourses that turn it into greenwashing? In the book, 35 specialists present a series of hypotheses to explain a phenomenon of such magnitude. Psychological motives, for example: by dulling the cognitive dissonance between what we know about the seriousness of ecological upheavals and what we do, or rather do not do, to limit them, greenwashing provides an illusory and perverse bulwark against panic.
The reading grids of sociology and the history of ideas make it possible to underline other dynamics, in particular three social world approaches that hamstring the approach to ecological issues: economism, technological solutionism and silo thinking.
Economism refers to the tendency to envision the conduct of human affairs only through market mechanisms. Managing the commons, self-organization, international cooperation and many other proposals are consequently left in the dark. The obsession with “green growth” is representative of this phenomenon: invisibilizing alternatives by market stubbornness.
Even more problematic: the inclusion of ecological measures in the logic of the market means subjecting them to a number of imperatives (profitability, competitiveness, growth, etc.) and serious drawbacks (blindness to negative externalities, obsessive quest for profit that can lead to dishonest practices, lobbies’ influence, etc.) that are precisely part of the driving forces behind the current disaster.
Finally, economism consists in a radical simplification of human and ecological challenges. It reduces the complexity of life to numerical indicators (GDP, turnover, financial value, etc.) in order to manage it via universal economic instruments. The incoherence of this approach is strikingly glaring in the “ecological compensation” processes that are at the heart of “green finance” and biodiversity management. The commodification of nature thus leads to a denial of the of the world’s qualitative depth.
Technological solutionism refers to trusting techno-scientific innovation to solve problems. In the face of the ecological crisis, it constitutes both a dangerous gamble and a powerful guardian of the established order: in view of the urgency and seriousness of the threats, believing that a miraculous technology will get us out of trouble is particularly risky, while excluding a whole range of alternative proposals from the picture. The idea of “saving the planet”, (or rather the “system”) through technology, locks us into demiurgic fantasies and in addition raises various well-known problems: displacement of ecological problems, rebound effect, depletion of resources (mining or land), delayed action, etc.
Silo thinking means considering the elements independently of the whole and thus maintain our blindness to systemic phenomena. This blinkered rationality translates, for example, into the promotion of “individualistic” solutions to ecological problems. Now, how can we possibly put the burden of a global crisis on individuals, isolated, on their own – who are the very victims of that crisis? While the articulation of the individual and the collective is undoubtedly a major political issue, the effacement of the latter behind the former is certainly an absolute dead end. The same is true when we set out to consider the ecological transition of sectors in isolation from one another. Is it relevant, for example, to consider decarbonizing aviation independently of the general greening of our societies, as is so often done?
This leads to well-documented pitfalls: pollution displacement (hydrogen-powered airplanes imply producing hydrogen), conflicts in use (aviation claims a colossal percentage of the total potential for agrofuel production, disregarding that other sectors will also have to use it), and land grabbing (to “compensate” for their emissions, airline companies plant trees on areas confiscated from local populations).
Jeopardizing the future by greening inertia?
The book authors thereby show to what degree greenwashing is a structurally produced phenomenon, which is recurrent in society as a whole. By distorting the understanding of the realities at stake, it contributes to delaying the ecological turn. This is even its fundamental result: to depoliticize the subject in order to preserve the status quo, to counter collective mobilization in favor of a real turnaround. The effect is to relegate action to dead ends and inhibit the social, economic, cultural and political transformations that should be (or should have been) undertaken to avoid ending up in the present predicament.
Yet something is even more pernicious. By blurring climate inaction, by even summarily greening collective apathy, greenwashing helps mask the new leap in the world’s industrialization that is taking place at an ever-faster pace, which is betrayed by the current techno-solutionist headlong rush. The notion of “path dependence” expresses in a general way the effects of inertia, blockage and reproduction that contemporary society’s many technical and organizational choices have set in stone: once such and such an option has been taken, it is hardly possible to change.
This situation is of major significance today, because, as the thresholds of ecological irreversibility are overstepped one after the other, it is as if the path were slipping away behind us, prohibiting any intention to retrace our steps. By sealing off the current trajectory, we end up missing turn-points that could have proved salutary, and greenwashing perilously reduces the range of possible worlds and justifies, beforehand, trying to ward off the ecological catastrophe by means of high-tech processes, from global digital monitoring to geo-engineering… which some people are already advocating as the only way to deal with the Anthropocene. At first a simple greening of facade, greenwashing reveals itself, when all is said and done, as a way to foreclose the future.
Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC licence BY-NC-ND
To discover her drawings, https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/
Images in CC: Freepik, srip, wanicon
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