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Do Corporate Greenwashing Scandals have a Shelf-Life?

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The 2012 London Olympics, hosted in a stadium that IOC asserts is “as sustainable as it is stunning,” have brought unprecedented attention not just to the athletes competing for medals, but also to the corporate sponsors competing for air time. A number of tarnished reputations plague the corporate contestants. BP Global, Dow Chemical, and Rio Tinto top the list of what consumers may consider environmentally unfriendly Olympic sponsors. Thanks to a lively coalition of environmental activists, for a short while it was possible to vote on which of the three top contenders should win the “Greenwash Gold 2012” award. Rio Tinto brought home the gold. But how long will the collective memory of Greenwash Gold 2012 last? If the shared memory of environmental abuse itself is any indicator, “not that long” may be the best answer. The iconic image of the oil-slicked pelican (or sea turtle, or tern, or plover) no longer airs during prime time, but BP’s post-spill “public service” ads, featuring standard greenwashing fodder, mostly certainly do.

Grandfatherly fishermen stroll along pristine beaches aside smiling BP executives night and day, apparently. BP’s website is quite literally awash with green, one of its less subtle marketing maneuvers. But it’s been more than two years since everyone from President Obama to the office gossip declared the Deepwater Horizon explosion “the worst environmental disaster in American history.” The green font on BP’s website waxes sentimental about the company’s “sustainability” practices, including desire “to be a safety leader … a world-class operator, a good corporate citizen and a great employer.” All this to “earn back trust and grow value.” After all, they’re one and the same; corporations that the public trusts do indeed grow their own value. If environmental activists want to stop them, then they have to keep greenwashing scandals from flying off the shelves and into the hands of, well, consumers.

Therein, of course, lies the rub: greenwashing works precisely because it equates sustainability with consumption. And there’s nothing Americans like to do more than consume. Most environmental activists have neither the income nor the media connections necessary to fight greenwashers on their own turf (i.e., your TV screen), which means that the outcome of this particular battle will likely be decided by the prize itself: consumers. All they have to do is start complaining. The good news is that lots of them already are. In California, two recent lawsuits against water bottlers, Fiji Water and Aquamantra, accused of greenwashing indicate a groundswell of consumer and political discontent with how easy it is becoming to be green. If Kermit only knew.

But class-action lawsuits and suits brought by attorneys-general are viable only because American consumers have invested the Federal Trade Commission with the power to protect them from fraud and deception. That protection indeed extends to the prosecution of greenwashing. However, the public can expect the FTC to serve its dedicated function for only as long as the citizenry insists upon it. It’s not hard to submit a complaint about greenwashing; in fact, it’s as easy as filling out a form online – what FTC.gov calls a “Complaint Assistant.” The same is true with greenwashing scandals. If media literacy and environmentally responsible consumption continue to thrive, greenwashing scandals can’t die down. Consumers can keep them alive by purchasing genuinely green products and supporting media entities that educate them about greenwashing.

On the one hand, the future looks promising: “greenwashing,” as a word, is becoming common parlance. Trends in consumer behavior indicate sincere, if sometimes misguided, concern with environmental stewardship, and every year the U.S. celebrates Earth Day with a bit more fervor. On the other hand, Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, which should have been cause to celebrate decades of progress in environmental stewardship, coincided with the Deepwater Horizon explosion. A month later, BP stock prices took a similar plunge; one share in the company lost roughly half its value from January to June that year. But BP Global has rebounded. Two years after the initial explosion, BP’s stock value closed at around $40 a share. Investors are clearly willing to let BP “earn back” at least some of the “trust” the corporation solicits on its website. It’s up to the public to remember why those words appear in a wash of bright green in the first place.

Matthew Speer is the founder of iSustainableEarth.com, a site dedicated to providing real solutions for real people – helping everyone embrace a sustainable living.

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