In writing up a forthcoming edition of my Weekly Ethics Thought, it occurred to me that I was really writing more commentary than anything (read: blog material…) so I decided to post it here instead. Here 'tis:
Last year, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing published an interesting study of ways in which companies suggest that products are environmentally safe when, in fact, they are not. The study is called "The Six Sins of Greenwashing".
Among the things I found fascinating about their study is how the types of greenwashing they discuss are really no different than the ways in which individuals and organizations whitewash things all day long when the picture isn't as pretty as they'd like others to imagine. Here are the six greenwashing techniques listed by TerraChoice with my interpretation of what they mean in everyday whitewashing terms:
- Hidden Trade-Offs – Using the exception to prove the rule or using 'selective' statistics to make a point that the full range of data can't really support.
- No Proof - Your point may or may not be correct but even if right, there aren't actually data to support it. (Of course, there is never anything wrong with making unsubstantiated statements – just be sure that they are clearly labeled as opinions and not facts!)
- Vaugueness – Maybe if you just make things a little less clear, others will assume that your bewildering arguments and behavior are okay when they aren't. Sins of willful information omission probably fit in here as well.
- Irrelevance - Give 'em something that looks or sounds really meaningful and hope they don't realize that what you've given them isn't actually at all relevant to the issue at hand. Magicians, fraudsters, and politicians all seem to be good at this. (Now that I see those three categories in print, side-by-side, it's kind of a scary-looking trio!)
- Lesser of Two Evils - Find a way to label something in a more positive light – or, at the very least, in a less negative light – and it will start to look much better by contrast against other similar, bad ideas, products, or behavior. (Here, I'd suggest the slightly different lot of marketers, fraudsters, and politicians as the most adept practitioners.)
- Fibbing - Here, the kindhearted folks at TerraChoice were far more delicate with their wording than am I. I believe that the somewhat more blunt term for this type of behavior is lying!
The original study is extremely interesting and is certainly recommended reading. However, whether you read it or not, my point is that we all need to think about whether we are engaging, or allowing others around us to engage, in these types of deceptive, evasive practices. If so, ethics demand that that we take every reasonable step to confront those actions. After all, if we see greenwashing, whitewashing, or just plain old hogwash being handed out to believing customers and don't credibly try to stop it, that automatically makes us one of the liars, too.