The Real Dangers of Greenwash

We’ve had versions of greenwashing (def: making people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is) ever since we realised that the environment needs protecting. And if we extend the definition to read ‘ . . . people and the environment . . .’ then we’ve had greenwashing ever since we’ve had professional advertising.  Marlboro man, anyone?

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a critique of the hotel industry asking guests to re-use their towels. Ostensibly to reduce energy, the campaign was actually there to reduce service costs and shore-up hotels’ bottom line. But at least no one got hurt.

Typical greenwashing in the lighting industry has been of the ‘eco-‘ prefix variety – with the magical term stuck in front of new range of lamps or luminaires, simply on the basis that the new ones are a bit more efficient than the old ones. And, let’s face it, we’ve wallowed in the success of energy reduction ever since the first tri-phosphor fluorescent tube put some real efficacy-difference between itself and its halophosphate forebears. And we did particularly well when we labelled tungsten halogen lamps as ‘eco-lamps’.
Everything’s relative, of course – and we all enjoy 20:20 hindsight.

The greenwash motto: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.

Even the Romans had a phrase for it: ‘Caveat Emptor’; that’s ‘Buyer Beware’ in the demotic and a phrase that is still in active use today. What it means is that the buyer – or the specifier – has a duty of care to ensure that the product is fit for purpose. You and me – we sometimes need to look a bit deeper to confirm that ‘fitness’.

Greenwash can be dangerous.

The worst greenwash comes when it’s not just the buyer/specifier who needs to beware, but when real damage is done to the environment as a consequence of those products being used. But here’s the thing: we don’t always get to hear about it. There’s a shadow aspect to Greenwashing, where deliberate marketing misdirection only tells part of the story. Genuine environmental advances are used to obscure other, less acceptable but fundamentally profitable, activity. It’s classic sleight of hand, so remember; don’t look at what the magician wants you to see – look at the other hand.

In this podcast we talk to Elena Lymberidi-Settimo of the European Environmental Bureau and Michael Scholand of CLASP about the continued use of mercury in an industry where it’s no longer necessary.

John Bullock is the editor of The Light Review

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