The Boy Who Cried “Greenwashing”

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The Boy Who Cried “Greenwashing”

I have been working hard, wanting to tease out something valuable to share with you regarding this topic.  Something that will make a difference.

Here it is.

“But the villagers thought he was trying to fool them again, and so they didn’t come.” ~ Aesop’s Fables

“Greenwash” is a real thing.  The opposite of truth in advertising.

Greenwashing (a compound word modelled on “whitewash”), or “green sheen,” is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies are environmentally friendly.

The Federal Trade Commission even has guidelines that define when a marketer can be guilty of making misleading environmental claims about their products or services.

But the term can be abused.  In my opinion, even by highly intelligent environmentalists, in which case it hurts our entire cause.

Here is an example:

Boy Who Cried Greenwash

A young, successful professional looking to make a career change requests specific feedback from a LinkedIn discussion board.

And her first reply is a “troller:”

“Business sustainability and corporate social responsibility have little to do with environmental sustainability… and more to do with green-wash…”

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

This wouldn’t be anything special.  But it is.

This troll isn’t a random person in their basement with nothing better to do.  This is a professional with a profile that can and should be taken seriously — if you were to only look at their profile.

But if you were to look at their activity — on this and many other groups — you would be disheartened.

They have nothing productive to offer in the realm of business besides, “It’s all greenwash.  Business is evil.  Fight the system.”

Every positive action is discounted.  Nothing is good enough.  No one is working on anything that matters.

And now — almost no one interacts with this person.  Their tactics and tone are well-known, and it’s not worth the time and energy to re-hash the same old emotional tirades with no useful outcomes.

The Truth in Trolling

Businesses do greenwash.  And some businesses cannot exist in a sustainable future.

  • Fossil fuels, if we don’t solve climate change
  • Nuclear, if we don’t solve waste/contamination
  • Outsourcing, if we don’t solve labor abuses

I can only look at the broader context, and assume that individuals like this have had a legitimate, traumatic experience at the hands of businesses.  Many examples exist:

These types of scenarios, by business — and allowed by government — destroy people’s lives, livelihoods, and the ecosystem that their grandchildren depend upon to survive.

There are many valid reasons to get angry, and be pessimistic.

The Lie in Trolling

Businesses can (and do) do good.  And a sustainable future cannot exist without business solutions.

  • Durable, reusable and/or recyclable goods
  • More efficient processes, for everything
  • Non-toxic substitutes for all persistent toxic chemicals
  • Materials sourced from non-sensitive areas

I can only assume also that individuals like my example spend the majority of their time focused on fighting against things… and very little fighting for an alternative.

They likely read mostly about environmental problems, and very little about workable environmental solutions.

I’m talking boots on the ground, practical answers.  Best practices.  In the trenches, figuring it out.

“Business and industry must change it’s ways to survive…  And by survive, I mean business must be steered through a transition from an old and dysfuntional model to a far better one that will operate in harmony with nature — thrive in a carbon-constrained world, and put down the threats of global climate disruption, species extinction, resource depletion, and environmental degradation.”

~ Ray Anderson

Environmental scientists, poets and authors may be the muse, painting a picture of a sustainable future.

Environmental activists, agitators, government regulators and NGOs may be the referee, framing the rules and holding business accountable.

But sustainable business models will be the work of millions of daily workers, supervisors, middle managers, department heads, and senior leaders — racking their brains to find new ways to do things.

Not only better processes, but viable means of transitioning to those new processes without putting their company and their family’s future in jeopardy.

What Isn’t Greenwashing?

Calling everything greenwashed is either a misunderstanding of marketing, or the time it takes to change.


  • You can’t put every piece of information about sustainability in every press release
  • That would be incomprehensible to the reader, and a waste of marketing dollars
  • If a claim references where the reader can go to get more, complete information — it is not greenwashing


  • Businesses hire mostly business majors, so it requires a lot of training and education
  • The psychology of change, influence/persuasion is not fast
  • You can’t change everything all at once, so prioritizing becomes an issue
  • If a claim gives a realistic projection of goals and timelines — it is not greenwashing

And there are many valid reasons to get happy, and be optimistic.

Start doing the following:

Following news sites like:

Reading books like:

Getting professional training like:

Or, do some of your own emotional shadow work.

Are You Tired of Being Angry?

There is a big difference between feeling anger (a valid emotion) and being angry as a way of life.

And the difference between the two determines the difference someone can make in the world.

Anger is a temporary, healthy emotion that needs expressed and integrated.  Once integrated, you can intelligently respond to any situation.

Angry is an unhealthy emotional state, from which you cannot intelligently respond… only react.

A victim of trauma has every reason to be angry.  I can definitely relate to a time I felt this way.

But, I got tired of being angry.  I got tired of fighting AGAINST everything.

I decided to fight FOR the things that would make a difference.

Pema Chodron is a female Buddhist monk that works with (among many others) effective activists.

Bodhisattvas are frequently activists.  But they’re activists who really have a lot of wisdom about what escalates the aggression and what diminishes it.


How do you feel about all this?  What is your perspective?



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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