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A Brief History of Greenwash

by Joshua KarlinerCorpWatch
March 22nd, 2001

As the contemporary environmental movement built momentum in the mid-to-late 1960s, undermining the public trust in many a corporation, newly greened corporate images flooded the airwaves, newspapers and magazines. This initial wave of greenwash was labeled by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry Mander and others at the time as "ecopornography."1

It seemed that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. It was a time when the anti-nuclear movement was coming into its own. In response, notes Mander, the nuclear power division of Westinghouse ran four-color advertisements "everywhere, extolling the anti-polluting virtues of atomic power" as "'reliable, low-cost...neat, clean, safe.'" (The latter-day versions of these ads now promote nuclear power as the answer to global warming.) Meanwhile, in the year 1969 alone, public utilities spent more than $300 million on advertising--more than eight times what they spent on the anti-pollution research they were touting in their ads. Overall, Mander estimated that oil, chemical, and automobile corporations, along with industrial associations and utilities, were spending nearly $1 billion a year on "ecopornography" and in the process were "destroying the word 'ecology' and perhaps all understanding of the concept."2 This incipient greenwash continued at a steady, moderate level through the first Earth Day in 1970, and into the Reagan years.

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As the 1980s produced the Bhopal, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez disasters, the environmental movement gained in strength. In response, greenwash advertisements became even more numerous and more sophisticated, peaking in 1990 on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. It was during that year of eco-hoopla that "corporate environmentalism" came into its own in the US. The transnationals came to recognize that increasing numbers of consumers wanted to buy green products. In fact, in the early 1990s, one poll found that seventy-seven percent of Americans said that a corporation's environmental reputation affected what they bought.3 In another US poll, eighty-four percent of the people regarded corporate environmental crimes as more serious than insider trading or price fixing.4

In response to this phenomenon, the corporate world went to great lengths to market itself and its products as the greenest of the green. One-fourth of all new household products that came on to the market in the US around the time of "Earth Day 20" advertised themselves as "recyclable, "biodegradable" "ozone friendly" or "compostable."5 Simultaneously, some of the world's greatest polluters spent millions putting on a shiny new coat of green paint -- both literally and figuratively. The oil company ARCO, for instance, concealed its Los Angeles facility behind a facade of palm trees and artificial waterfalls in what one commentator labeled an "industrial version of cosmetic dentistry."6 DuPont worked with Madison Avenue giant BBDO to produce an ad full of seals clapping, whales and dolphins jumping, and flamingos flying, all set to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, to project its newfound green image. And Dow Chemical, the largest producer of chlorine in the world, used the image of the planet Earth to tout its "ongoing commitment" to the environment, which it claims can be traced back to the founding of the company.7

Similarly, across the Pacific, nuclear giant Hitachi was billing itself in advertisements as "a citizen of the Earth." The brewery Suntory, a member of the Sanwa keiretsu, produced a new beer, "The Earth." The company's advertising tag line, "Suntory: Thinking About the Earth," was emblazoned on cans of beer.8 And a Mitsubishi Corporation joint venture which clearcut vast swaths of one hundred year old Aspen forests in Canada, producing between six and eight million pair of disposable chopsticks a day, exported them to Japan, where they were sold as "chopsticks that protect nature."9

In Europe, greenwash was no less prevalent. The Swiss chemical corporation Sandoz, in an effort to rehabilitate its image after the 1986 Basel spill, ran advertisements depicting a forest, a tranquil pond, and a clean river running through the scene. To a certain degree, the advertisement was accurate; by 1990 Sandoz had relocated its hazardous chemical production from Switzerland to Brazil and India.10 Meanwhile, the British Corporation ICI, which for years was the world's number two producer of ozone-depleting CFCs until it was forced to phase them out, advertised its shift to HFCs and HCFCs -- global warming gases and ozone-depleters respectively -- as ushering in "a new generation of ozone friendly fluorocarbons."11

This toxic greenwash also spilled into the Third World. In Malaysia, for instance, ICI produced a blatantly deceptive full color newspaper advertisement whose headline trumpeted "Paraquat and Nature Working in Perfect Harmony."12 The ad, which described Paraquat as "environmentally friendly," contained a series of outrageous assertions about the highly toxic herbicide that has poisoned tens of thousands of workers in Malaysia alone, is banned in five countries and is listed as one of the "dirty dozen" by the Pesticide Action Network.13 In New Delhi DuPont ran a weekly environmental advertisement in The Times of India where it portrayed itself as an ecological champion.14 The Brazilian transnational Aracruz Cellulosa advertised to a global audience that its monocrop plantations, which make it the world's leading producer of chlorine bleached eucalyptus pulp, are a "partnership with Nature" and promoted itself as a model for sustainable development.15 In Argentina, Exxon publicized its financial support for a wetlands project with the tagline "There's a tiger that cares for the deer."16 And in Russia, Chevron aired its People Do advertisements in an effort to overcome public opposition to its oil drilling plans.17

As economic globalization spreads, the world appears to be drowning in greenwash. This state of affairs was epitomized at the 1992 UN Conference in Rio when Secretary General Maurice Strong created an Eco-Fund to finance the event. The Eco-Fund franchised rights to the Earth Summit logo to the likes of ARCO ICI, and Mitsubishi group member Asahi Glass.18

Excerpted from CorpWatch Executive Director Joshua Karliner's, The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization, Sierra Club Books, 1997


Endnotes

  1. Jerry Mander, "Ecopornography: One Year and Nearly a Billion Dollars Later, Advertising Owns Ecology" Communication and Arts Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1972, pp. 45-56; Thomas Turner "Eco-Pornography or How to Spot an Ecological Phony" in Garrett de Bell ed., The Environmental Handbook: Prepared for the First National Environmental Teach-In, April 22, 1970, pp. 263-267.

  2. Mander, "Ecopornography" 47.

  3. Jack Doyle, "`Enviro Imaging' for Market Share: Corporations Take to the Ad Pages to Brush Up Their Images" Not Man Apart, Friends of the Earth, 1990.

  4. Jack Doyle, Hold the Applause: A Case Study of Corporate Environmentalism As Practiced At DuPont, Friends of the Earth, Washington DC, 1991, p. iii.

  5. Alan Thien Durning, "Can't Live Without It" World Watch, May/June 1993, p. 18.

  6. Narrator's comment in The Prize, Part Seven, "The New Order of Oil" an Invision Production for Majestic Films and Transpacific Films in Association with BBC TV and WGBH Boston.

  7. Dow, "What on Earth is Dow Doing?" Dow Chemical Company advertisement.

  8. Nakamura Yoichi, "The Ecobusiness Logic" AMPO Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1992, p. 56.

  9. Joshua Karliner, "God's Little Chopsticks" Mother Jones, September/October 1994, p. 16.

  10. Bruno, Greenwash, 20.

  11. Doyle, "Enviro Imaging."

  12. ICI advertisement, The Malay Mail, April 5, 1993.

  13. Kenny Bruno and Jed Greer, "Imperial Chemical Industries" Greenwash Snapshot #10, Greenpeace International, 1993; Walden Bello People and Power in the Pacific, Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1992, p. 57.

  14. K.D. Sadhale, Author's Interview, Ponda, Goa, April 3, 1994.

  15. Aracruz "Preserving Nature is a Good Deal" Aracruz Celulose S.A., Advertisement; Christina Lamb, "Chopping Down Rainforest Myths" Financial Times, London, Jnauary 8, 1992.

  16. Exxon "Hay Un Tigre Que Cuida de los Ciervos" advertisement in Gerencia Ambiental, Buenos Aires, May 1994.

  17. Justin Lowe, "Chevron's Fish Stories" San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 18, 1990, p. 26.

  18. Other Eco-Fund donors included Volkswagen, Swatch and 3M, Thomas Harding, Danny Kennedy and Pratap Chatterjee, Whose Summit Is It Anyway?: An Investigative Report on the Corporate Sponsorship of the Earth Summit, ASEED-International Youth Network, Rio deJaneiro, June 1992.