We caught up with Christine MacDonald just after she finished writing "Green Inc.,'' a look at the often-clubby ties between companies and environmental groups.
The companies want to look good as more and more customers care about the shape of the world -- and what their purchases do to it.
The environmental groups need funding for their projects, too -- but MacDonald, a former Conservation International official, wonders if they are making too many compromises.
Here's MacDonald on six questions we asked on word vs. deed -- or Real Green vs. Fake Green.
1. What is greenwashing?
It’s a twist on the word “whitewashing” used to describe efforts – usually by companies –to appear more environmentally friendly when they really aren’t. The concept has been around for a few decades but we’ve seen a deluge of greenwashing since early 2007, when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its warning that global warming was reaching the point of no return.
2. Who are two of the biggest offenders, in your view?
My publisher has asked me not to give away too much of the content of the book before it comes out in September. But I can tell you that among the companies discussed are BP, Ikea and Wal-Mart that advertise as “green” companies. Those companies and dozens of others discussed in the book have improved some aspects of their environmental footprints. They have also struck up high profile partnerships with some of the country’s largest environmental groups. But the changes fall far short of the kind of carbon-slashing prescribed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Most companies have yet to tackle thorny issues like how their supply chains are deforesting the planet or the climate changing effect of their manufacturing and distribution systems.
3. How do you stay green and not get disillusioned if greenwashing is so pervasive?
One way we can have some control is to take responsibility for what we buy: learn about how your groceries, household goods, clothes, furniture, etc. are made. Stop buying products made by companies doing environmental damage.
The companies provide lots of information in their sustainability reports, though those reports must be taken with a grain of salt because they are essentially corporate marketing tools. But company information on what raw materials they used; where they come from; how and where they are manufactured; etc. can be a great jumping off point for delving into studies of environmental problems tied to industrial activity. Groups like Rainforest Action Network, Environmental Investigative Agency and Friends of the Earth have done in-depth research on environmental degradation caused by illegal logging and cash crops like soybeans, coffee and palm oil. Others groups have studied pollution impacts. For instance, the Political Economy Research institute at the University of Massachusetts puts out “The Toxic 100,” an annual list of the worst corporate air polluters. (It’s available right here.)
The good news is we don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment, according to a growing number of studies. McKinsey & Co., the business consulting firm for Fortune 500 companies, spent two years looking at what it would take to reduce greenhouse emissions as recommended by the U.N. panel. McKinsey’s experts concluded the cost would be “quite low on a societal basis” with much of the initial investment yielding long-term savings in energy costs and stimulating economic activity. So it’s not a question of “if” we can do something to reverse the decline of the Earth’s living systems; it’s a question of whether governments and corporations are willing to make the investments in cleaner technology. It’s also clear that if we do nothing the world economy is going to be enormously vulnerable to losses from adverse weather, declining agricultural productivity, water shortages, and so on, not to mention the impact on people and other species.
4. How have you changed your life since writing this book?
I’m much more aware of how my purchases impact the planet. While I was finishing the book, at one point, I just stopped shopping for nonessentials – basically anything but groceries. I was overwhelmed with what I was learning about supply chains and how so much of what we buy at the mall or the nearest big box store is the product of environmental devastation either because the raw materials were ripped from a rainforest or because of the greenhouse gases spewed in the process of getting those materials to the factory, manufacturing them into products that then had to be shipped, trucked or airlifted to market.
Of course, I won’t be able to keep up my shopping moratorium forever. But I will be paying much more attention to what I buy. I’ve also developed an interest in consignment shop clothes and other “recycled” items.
5. Where’s the line between a particularly inefficient operation and a cynically manipulated one?
Today just about every major corporation in the world has adopted “green” speak. They say they are “greening” their operations to become “environmentally sustainable.” They claim to be “stewards of the environment.” In many, many cases, however, if you compare their “green” initiatives to the environmental toll of their operations – as I do in the book – theses claims lose all credibility. The vast majority of the corporate greening going on today is mere lip service. It’s greenwashing. But the fact that these companies are concerned that the public perceive them as “green” is an encouraging development.
6. What’s being done to bring greenwashers in line?
The Federal Communications Commission has regulations that apply to green advertising and launched a review of green marketing rules this year, one year ahead of its previously announced schedule. But consumer backlash has been an even bigger concern of companies. Studies show consumers are skeptical of green advertising claims. And activist groups have targeted companies they consider greenwashers.
But it can be confusing to differentiate between “green” and “greenwashing” because some of the biggest environmental groups in the world have close ties to corporations and shy away from criticizing their corporate benefactors. World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club not only take corporate money; they help sell a variety of products by lending out their names and logos. While it might appear that the Sierra Club or WWF are endorsing the products that wear their logos, these are purely financial transactions. The groups don’t conduct any product testing or comparisons to determine whether the claims made on the product label are true or whether the products they help market are superior to competing ones. These relationships between environmental groups and corporations are the focus of my book.
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.