50 Shades of green – corporate greenwashing

When governments, organizations or corporate entities have made a mistake, we often hear that the problems that arose were covered up; there was a whitewash. The term alludes to a relatively quick, easy and cheap way of painting over the cracks in a wall. Today, we also have “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is the environmental equivalent of sweeping problems under the carpet and papering over the cracks (to mix a metaphor or two). Worryingly, it is on the increase.

The marketing and public relations departments of companies with less than emeraldine environmental credentials, and ethically dubious ecological records, can often find ways to greenwash their websites and reports to shareholders and other stakeholders. One of the most prominent, scurrilous and obvious of these is the use of photography. If a picture paints a thousand words then a carefully chosen, and even more carefully “Photoshopped”, picture can redraft those words to tell an entirely different tale. Images of children playing happily near the spouting waterpump avoid the pollution-pumping factories on the distant horizon. Verdant fields and butterflies don’t show what’s over the hills and far away, for instance.

Joel Richard Thomas of the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK and a business consultant for IBM, is skeptical of the greenwashing practices of many corporate entities. He points out that companies are obliged to present social and environmental performance alongside financial results in their annual reports. Today, many make use of highly ambiguous photography to essentially misinform and disengage the reader from the true nature of negative social and environmental effects of the company’s activities. He suggests that company reports are now so well obfuscated that it is often difficult to decipher genuine reporting from greenwashing, especially in the visual domain of carefully chosen photography and the skewed infographic.

Of course, the cynical reader of the annual report from the less than verdant company might imagine that they would quickly filter out the greenwashing, adjusting the hue by taking off the green-tinted lenses, but it is difficult to see red when confronted with beautiful, calming, green photography. Reports are there to bridge the gap between the corporate and the wider public. However, Thomas suggests that it is time for tougher regulation on how company information is represented to avoid misleading representations of activities and negative impacts.

Thomas, J.R. (2014) ‘Shades of green: a critical assessment of greenwashing in social and environmental business performance reports’, J. International Business and Entrepreneurship Development, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp.245-252.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.