A little greenwasher in all of us

Joel Makower writes a enlightened post about the “green washing” of organizations.

Greenwashing is “what corporations do when they try to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they really are,” in the words of the watchdog group Sourcewatch.

Do BP’s, or Wal-mart’s, or GE’s green initiatives render them benevolent leaders or malevolent greenwashers? You can find passionate opinion claiming both.

And while it’s generally good that we maintain high standards for companies’ seeking to claim environmental leadership, I can’t help but ponder the hypocrisy of it all: how much more we expect of companies than of ourselves.

When I speak to audiences about the greening of business — nearly every week these days, or so it seems — I often conduct an informal poll to see how audience members behave in their personal lives: how many drive hybrids or carpool to work, or are simply driving less; how many have installed solar panels or purchase green energy for their homes; how many use organic or low-toxic gardening techniques; how many seek out locally produced goods; how many have taken the basic measures at home — have installed energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, water-saving devices, insulation and weatherstripping, and the like.

Some audiences are more tentative than others in volunteering answers, but even the most enthusiastic groups tend to have only a handful of members who appear to taking more than a few token actions.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that companies be let off the hook. As I’ve said, they need to be held to high standards, especially those making green claims. But all of this begs a question that I’ve been asking audiences and discussing with hundreds of people over the past couple of years: What must a company do to be considered “green”? What is the minimum level of policies, programs, performance, and progress that a company must exhibit to be seen as green?

As we watch and read these stories and, perhaps, proffer some inner expression of support — “Attaboy! Nail those bastards!” — it may well be worth committing a split second or two to self-reflection: “Am I really doing all that I can to address the environmental problems that concern me most?” “Do I profess one thing and do another?” “Do my friends think I’m greener than I really am?” “Am I holding others to a higher standard than myself?”

And, in the process, perhaps acknowledge that there is, indeed, a little greenwasher in all of us.

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