#137 The New Greenwashing

Carol’s topic for discussion: What is Greenwashing? Who falls into the trap and why? How can we examine ourselves, and manage our internal greenwashing, or even help others working to do that. 


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What is Greenwashing?

Where did the term “”greenwashing” come from? 

  • Carol was in the hay-day of her environmental activism when companies were beginning to be called out to by an increasing number of people for claiming false demonstration of ‘doing the right thing.”
    • The idea of recycling was gaining great credibility starting in the 1970s. Organizations were forming to take on the coming climate crisis and making lists of false claims. But it did not get named as such until a decade later.
  • iN 1983, A  young man named Jay Westervel ,first got the idea for the term greenwashing. He was an undergraduate student on a research trip to Samoa, but stopped off in Fiji to surf. He was staying at a cheap guest house next door to the sprawling Beachcomber Resort.
    • He snuck in and was not a paying guest.  Don’t forget, he was a college student. He then saw a note asking customers to pick up their towels. “It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage,” Westerveld recalls. “They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’.”

So, what is Greenwashing? How do we know if a business is doing that?

We have three guidelines to start with. And we see people using the idea of Regeneration falling into these three traps and making claims that Jary would have called  them out on.

  • First, are they using fragmented examples of their work. and using it to claim ‘righteousness.”  If you look a bit deeper you can see if it is not representative of the whole of their intention and action.
  • My second guideline is, are they primarily problem solving to make sure the outcomes are “less bad” than they used to be, rather than just promoting healthy working.
    • They reduce their waste for example, but it does not have a systemic effect that benefits something beyond themselves.
    • So problems may be worth solving, but look at where the benefit accrues. Greenwashing is pointing to Life but not as alive. Green implies living.
    • We associate green with a living system, for good reason. It is an interactive exchange among different living entities within a living place. And life processes are recurring and always moving and changing.
      • So you have to see how life is being considered. Life does not engage in problem solving but growth and the working of something. It is a projection to think it is problem solving. Like we project human emotions and interpretations of behavior onto our pets.
      • It is greenwashing if it is not working on improving the ability to be green in a living way. Greenwashing also is taking from the Tom Sawyer process of painting something to look different, but on a static object, like a fence, or part of a fence.
  • The third guideline is the most cruel one, but one that spills over into those who are working for good, the well intended folks, including on Regeneration,  and one we might help people used for self-examination if they are up to it.
    • It uses generic criteria to define green and to design what we work on. It is appealing to standardized, prevailing or universal ideas applied to their activities.  As though all of life is the same in a category of the same. They are following criteria created by someone else to apply to all situations.
    • This is a problem because green is always about something alive, someone, some place- a forest, a child, a town. And anything alive is unique and distinctive. Nothing alive is ever the same. So Generic is like killing it. Or at least objectifying it to be like all others.
      • All living entities grow and change. They are ever-green as a species or intellectually. So Jay Westerveld picked the right name- Green-Washing. A business paints itself with green paint, which is thinned down to give the appearance of green. It is washed using generic ideas, that speak to part of what it is doing, or only for a part for which they are solving a problem. Not looking at the living whole.
      • This means we have to be looking at a specific place or entity following  living systems guidelines. If not, it is greenwashing. Because you cannot be green generically. You are green with a specific Life- a place a person, an entity. If you have a checklist, you are greenwashing.

Why do businesses and each of us as individual humans tend to greenwash? 

What can give us, as people who are seeking to stop the greenwashing, a way to catch ourselves in it. We are subject to all these challenges. What is hidden from us?

  • The worst case is we do it to deceive people. To do what we want to do to benefit ourselves and lie to cover up. Or distract from the rest of our deeds. We do good deeds. This is how philanthropy works far too often. “See, we feed hungry children while we pollute the river that is the source of their drinking water.”
  • We all want to be seen as doing the right and good thing, especially to ourselves and family. Defensiveness arises about being judged by others as not living up to community  or family ideals.
    • So, we represent our deeds to ourselves and others with rationalization and justifications. This leads us often to simplifying or “dumb it down” to platitudes about what we are doing. There is some truth to it, but not the whole truth.
    • Like ‘fair trade” even when the whole of a community may be undermined but wages are fair and working conditions are safe.
    • A good way to check yourself on this is ask ‘am I working with a list or a list in a pie shaped?’ That is a sure sign of a fragmented process.
      • You need a system, a framework that shows you the whole or you make a list. Lists are a sure sign of likelihood of greenwashing tendencies even when seemingly good things are on that list. Or on your circular graphic. It is part of the pie. And the word part is another clue of not seeing life as living. Life has no parts, only nested entities. This is a super hard thing to come to grips with because we are immersed in teaching and explanations that are list based.

Analysis on Greenwashing 

  • Ask yourself, am ‘I using lists to show what I am doing with rosy lens.’ 
    • Maybe graphically depicted to make it seem whole? What is the underlying framework to tell it if it is the whole and how it is interdependent as a whole.
    • Do you think that list is applicable in all situations and am defying the way life works since no generic set applies to life. Those alone are pretty powerful.
  • Our personal/ group income, and position/ identity, is dependent on these ideas being right. If we found an organization with ideas, we would defend them. It belongs to a group and is not ostracized. And all of this is even if Earth suffers,or communities flail. We hold tight to our ideas and defend them and the process we used to get to them.
    • It means we have to work with a living system view of Life. And we have to work on ourselves to see our biases and blinders. The hardest part.
    • We have to see life in terms of  living nested systems working in a living way. Luckily there are some principles of living systems that are drawn from indigenous peoples who lived close to the life and saw themselves as human systems as embedded with natural systems. Or maybe questions we can use to examine our deeds?
      • We can start with, “Are we engaging with the whole of an entity?” Beachcombers were presenting one face and working on one aspect of the whole of its work. And were not connected to the whole of life in that place.
        • You have to start with conceiving of the Whole that is affected and to be benefitted. Do we see it as unique and alive in a way that makes it singular rather than generic?
          • It is a cultural indoctrination. But keep asking ‘what is the whole.’
        • Second, we have to see the potential and not the problem. And not ask what is the ideal for it.
        • That is human projection and usually our ideas on another living being ignoring what it is pursuing, aspiring to or role it is playing. Ask instead, what is aspiring to and pursuing? You will get closer.
      • Native people learn to read the history of a place and can see its evolution over a millennia and what has changed. As well as what they can do to support the potential that can still be realized. Again, how does it work? And at least for today, ask what is the essence of that entity. It is the one question that can wipe out generic. Not what type is it, but what is core to its being that can be seen in how it lives and works and contributes.

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5 Responses to #137 The New Greenwashing

  1. Avatar
    Amanda Tullos February 19, 2020 at 12:56 pm #

    Great insight! It’s definitely a discipline to continue to push for wholeness in daily work.

  2. Avatar
    james February 20, 2020 at 12:59 am #

    Hi- I see your mention of your “environmental activism”.

    What specific actions did you take toward environmental ends?

    ” Carol was in the hay-day of her environmental activism when companies were beginning to be called out to by an increasing number of people for claiming false demonstration of ‘doing the right thing.” “

    • Avatar
      Carol Sanford February 20, 2020 at 8:17 am #

      I worked with the League of Women Voters on advocating waste reduction, demonstrating against companies, writing about it, and personally working on my household.I was a prof at San Jose State in urban planning and business and introduced advocacy and information lessons into my graduate programs. It felt like low impact and so I shifted away from advocating for envirnoomental causes.And went to work to educate the mind the drove it, and particularly working with businesses who drove much and where more impact would result. It feels much more effective.

      • Avatar
        James February 20, 2020 at 4:55 pm #

        You didn’t actually take part in any actual “environmental activism”, did you?
        You merely used that expression to try to claim some stake in this movement.

        You certainly know something about “Greenwashing”, Ms. Sandford.

        • Avatar
          Carol Sanford February 23, 2020 at 8:01 am #

          Not sure I understand your reply. Were you wanting my full resume of my early years, with Greenpeace and Dupoont demonstrations and Stockholder board disruption by activism in investing. They don’t seem relevant to this article. I feel little happened from my activism during that time and from other’s activism. It instead pused people deeper into the position. Question the Effects! I found working on education of thinking, lifting up of the mind to be self-reflectivees, that could see our effects (for lack thereof) was where things really shifted. That is my point. And learning to be discerning about your effects on the change you are pursuing. Same outcomes when I demonstrated as a student at Berkely against the was. I made more hardcore neoconservatives rather than changed their mind. Maybe that helps.

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