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The World of Greenwash

by Kenny BrunoCorpWatch
January 1st, 1997

The world's leading ozone destroyer takes credit for leadership in ozone protection. A mammoth greenhouse gas emitter professes the precautionary approach to global warming. A major agrichemical manufacturer trades in a pesticide so hazardous it has been banned in many countries, while implying it is helping feed the hungry. A petrochemical firm uses the waste from one polluting process as raw material for another hazardous process, and boasts of an important recycling initiative. Another giant multinational cuts timber from virgin rainforest, replaces it with monoculture plantations and calls the project "sustainable forest development."

Welcome to the world of GREENWASH, where transnational corporations (TNCs) are preserving and expanding their markets by posing as friends of the environment and enemies of poverty. Greenwash takes many forms: from the pious concern for the environment expressed in expensive advertising campaigns, to the "continuous improvement" ballyhooed in voluntary codes of conduct; from the creation of benign-sounding corporate front groups, to the participation of TNCs in environmental conferences and events. All these efforts share the goal of avoiding national and international sanctions on dirty TNC operations, which are at the root of many global environmental crises.

Greenwash began in heavily industrialized countries of the world in the 1970's. The corporate tactic has intensified since then, with the concurrent growth of public environmental awareness. By the time the United Nations held its conference on environment and development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, greenwash had gone global. Forty eight of the top business executives in the world attended UNCED. These executives formed the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), and were charged by UNCED General Secretary Maurice Strong with providing the business perspective to the conference. The BCSD, along with the more traditional lobbying group the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), had unparalleled access to the UNCED Secretariat and extraordinary influence in weakening key agreements, including the biodiversity and climate conventions and Agenda 21.

TNCs from the oil, petrochemical, agrichemical and nuclear industries are among those claiming that free trade, open markets and voluntary codes of environmental conduct will combine to provide economic growth with environmental protection. In the world view of corporate "environmentalists," environmental protection is subservient to free trade; therefore, international trade in wastes, toxic products and hazardous technologies will continue, and perhaps increase. In this view, the only brake on this dangerous trend is the "deep cultural change" some corporations claim to have undergone.

Cover of the book, Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism

The Greenpeace Book On Greenwash, released by in Rio just before UNCED, and recently updated and re-released in 1996 as Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism by the Malaysia-based Third World Network, exposes the reality under the new green image of TNCs. It provides evidence, in corporate words and deeds, that TNCs remain the primary creators and peddlers of dirty, dangerous and unsustainable technologies. Among the many findings of the Book on Greenwash:

  • DuPont executives still deny that their lead gasoline additive is harmful and claim they have taken the precautionary approach to ozone destruction.

  • Shell and Dow are still avoiding responsibility for pesticide poisonings from their product DBCP.

  • Tropical timber trader Mitsubishi blames poor people for tropical deforestation.

  • Rhone Poulenc and others defend the export of domestically banned pesticides.

  • Money spent on "environmental programs" sometimes goes to polluting chemical waste incinerators.

  • Trade secrets still take precedence over the public's right to know.

All these positions appear compatible with the ICC Business Charter For Sustainable Development and Responsible Care programs so highly touted by TNCs.

The history of the industrial age, recent environmental tragedies like Bhopal and the destruction of the ozone layer teach us that market forces will not automatically lead to environmental protection. TNCs cannot be relied upon to police themselves in environmental matters. Instead, control of TNC behavior must come from participatory governmental process and the force of law.

The world's governments have allowed corporate greenwash to thwart progress in environmental protection. Now thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have grown outraged. Some NGOs have developed principles of their own for control of TNC behavior. These include the precautionary principle, clean production, public participation and freedom of information, environmental assessments and audits, bans on trade in hazards, and strict liability.

The battle line has been drawn. As we move into the era of free trade and free market environmentalism, the battle between environmentalists and TNCs will only intensify.

Kenny Bruno is CorpWatch's UN Project Coordinator and Greenwash Guru.