A History of Greenwashing: How Dirty Towels Impacted the Green Movement

greenwashing green police consumer allyAt some point in the mid-1980s, a pony-tailed upstate New York environmental activist named Jay Westerveld picked up a card in a South Pacific hotel room and read the following: "Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, 'I will use again.' A towel on the floor means, 'Please replace.' Thank your for helping us conserve the Earth's vital resources." The card was decorated with the three green arrows that make up the recycling symbol.

Westerveld saw irony in the "save the towel" movement, because hotels waste resources in many different ways -- and not washing as many linens saves the corporation money. He put his thoughts together in a 1986 essay and, as he tells it, coined the phrase "greenwashing" in the process.I reached Westerveld through a circuitous process, and he took a break from studying overwintering salamander larvae in mineshafts to talk to me on the phone. When he read the hotel card, he was in Samoa studying tooth-billed pigeons. He's that kind of a guy, a true-blue greenie who doesn't like what's happened to the word "green."

The word 'greenwashing' just came to me," he said. "It seemed really logical, pretty simple, kind of like whitewashing."

Westerveld told me that the word "green" originally came into popularity through its regular use by the Green Party in Germany, which used it in context of its work squatting in and preserving old buildings (instead of building new ones) and stopping forest destruction.

Although he says he's a big believer in energy efficiency, Westerveld decries the hijacking of "green" by corporations to apply to even minor advances in efficiency. "The meaning has been usurped, and it's not really about making the planet greener anymore," he said. Westerveld says that greenwashing has only gotten worse since he coined the phrase.

Although he probably coined the phrase, others recognized the greenwashing concept much earlier than that. According to CorpWatch, when the "ecology" movement began to gather steam in the mid-to-late 1960s, corporations sought to get on the bandwagon, and social critic Jerry Mander described their slick efforts as "eco-pornography." It just doesn't have a ring to it, does it?

The first Earth Day in 1970 was not a corporate extravaganza (I was there) but the big brands soon made up for lost time. When Dupont announced that it would start using doublehulled tankers to guard against oil spills, it ran ads showing seals clapping to the sound of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Chevron's "People Do" campaign spotlighting small-scale corporate environmental campaigns helped cover up the company's oil drilling, links to hundreds of Superfund sites, and major financial support for "wise use" anti-environmental organizations.

For "Earth Day 20" in 1990, there was a huge outpouring of popular support (200 million people in 141 countries were involved), and a fourth of all household products were being advertised as "recyclable," biodegradable," "ozone friendly" or "compostable." In polls, people said that companies' environmental reputation affects their buying habits.

The environmentalist Barry Commoner, a onetime candidate for President, came up with another non-catchy term, "linguistic detoxification," that nonetheless describes a really important part of greenwashing. For obvious reason, sewage sludge became "biosolids," U.S. Tobacco became UST, and Raybestos became Raymark.

By any other name, it's still greenwashing. And this column is devoted to exposing it. Thanks, Jay, for giving our watchdog role a name. And by the way, I totally agree with you about those annoying and sanctimonious hotel cards. They're taking green credit for reducing their laundry bills, and it will take a whole lot more to "save the planet." But hotels are starting to introduce more genuine reforms, in the laundry room and elsewhere. Some are even putting in charging stations for electric cars.
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