No more glossing over ‘greenwashing’

"Green" has been used since the 1970s to describe individuals, political parties, and products that take steps to preserve the natural environment.


Last year, governments around the world attempted to tackle greenwashing, “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is,” according to Merriam-Webster. China, the United States, and India addressed it in the financial realm, drafting rules that would force investment companies to analyze the environmental impacts of their funds before advertising them as sustainable. 

The European Union focused on green-washing in supply chains, while France passed a law against éco-blanchiment (literally “eco-whitening”). 

The word is easy to define, but the practice can be difficult to identify. When the oil company BP, formerly British Petroleum, adopted a green sunburst logo and rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum” in the early 2000s, the greenwashing could hardly have been clearer. But what about companies that tout their recycled polyester (which produces microplastics), or their compostable packaging (which is compostable only under very specific conditions)?

Green has been used since the 1970s to describe individuals, political parties, and products that take steps to preserve the natural environment; greenwashing followed a decade later. It is modeled on whitewashing, which first appeared in the 16th century to describe the even older process of applying a “paint” made of lime or chalk and water to walls to whiten them. 

Whitewash was inexpensive but easily damaged – walls had to be recoated every two or three years, and thick layers could accrue, concealing the surface beneath. The word began to be used figuratively to mean “to gloss over or cover up” something, such as a record of criminal behavior.  

Greenwashing is by far the most frequently encountered derivative of whitewash, but other colors also make sporadic appearances. For example, there are two kinds of pinkwashing – one appropriates the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon to sell products, while the other involves flaunting purported support for LGBTQ+ rights.

The suffix -wash is not limited to colors. Linguist Ben Zimmer cites examples of Canadians maplewashing, acting as if their country has no problems because those of other countries seem worse. 

With the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the soccer World Cup in Qatar, 2022 was also the year the news media began to decry sportswashing, when a nation holds a major sporting event to improve its public image and draw attention away from a poor human rights record, dodgy climate policy, and so on. 

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