The Upside of Greenwashing

How a low-down, double-dealing dark art just might be raising our consciousness

Your detergent is green, your deodorant and dog food and dandruff shampoo. Your SUV is green, your Coke is green, your running shoes and garbage bags. All the world’s gone emerald, and yet the ice caps keep melting. What gives? If even ExxonMobil’s telling us it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, are we witnessing massive fraud, a sea-change in American attitudes—or both?

Green marketing purports to sell us products, but what it really sells is a more benign vision of the world—and of ourselves. It starts from the assumption that we know something is wrong with the way we’ve been living, proceeds to flatter us with the assumption that we care about fixing what’s wrong, and then proposes that we can fix it by buying the right stuff.

This process can be legitimate and effective. If you build a greener mousetrap, wouldn’t you want the poor mouse to know? But the real hijinks start when the trap isn’t so green after all, but you go ahead and seduce the mouse anyway. The former is mere propaganda; the latter is a dark art. And here’s the thing: The dark art, too, may have a bright side.

Stay with me now, Mr. Gore.

Greenwashing—the practice in which a company markets its environmental sensitivity rather than actually being sensitive to the environment—is modern spectacle of the first order; it refinishes reality, polishes it to a shine and holds it up to us as a funhouse mirror. You can harp on greenwashing’s shamefulness, but that would underrate its brilliance as a consciousness-raising performance art.

Few of us are naïve enough to think that capitalism’s really gone as green as we’re told. And we don’t buy that new GE gas range simply because the company launched, a site that keeps us in the know on everything from the latest South Korean wind-farm news to how to harvest energy from cheese waste. Skepticism about green claims is both healthy and downright American: We’ve got a centuries-long tradition of rolling our eyes at hucksterism even as we’re enticed by it. By now, we’re well aware that buying a bleach bottle decorated with earth-tones and a stylized leaf doesn’t make us rescuers of the earth.

But even as we recognize the cynicism of inflated green claims, another almost-unconscious process is taking place within us: We are learning that green thinking is not un-American.

In the early 1970s, when University of California, Irvine professor F. Sherwood Rowland discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosol sprays were tearing a hole in the ozone layer, he was denounced as a communist, a threat to the American Way. The notion that any element of commerce should be reined in for the greater good of the planet was considered by many a form of Leninist collectivism (never mind that the Soviet Union’s own environmental policies were aptly described by the eminent Sovietologist Murray Feshbach as “ecocide”). Rowland battled for more than a decade before his theory gained enough traction to beget the 1987 Montreal Protocol—an international agreement to phase out CFCs. Today, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is closing, and the tear is expected to fully heal by 2050.

Along the way, something else important happened: The very companies that had battled so fiercely against Rowland’s science began to proudly advertise “No CFCs” on their products.

Green thinking had become an appropriate part of consumer behavior—in other words, it became, once again, wholly American. After decades on the cultural fringe, a movement with deep roots in the archetypical American West—the West of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and the film director John Ford—was repatriated into the American mainstream. But if Roosevelt’s green involved singing the praises of our unsullied places, post-Rowland green meant supporting companies that try—or claim to try—not to destroy what’s left.

In the decades since the Montreal Protocol, the old Western paradox—that nature is God’s gift for us to simultaneously cherish and consume—has been revived by Madison Avenue pitchmen who understand that American materialism cannot be abolished, only reformed. Environmentalists get it, too—today’s stakes are too high for them to camp outside the borders of consumer discourse. If you want to shift paradigms in a market society, you need millions of people to buy in. Our future depends on the selling of green.

Even in its most mendacious form, green marketing is a step toward making that sale; it not only acknowledges our environmental concerns, but validates them. We’re somehow more comfortable with environmentalism when we see it embraced by Big Capitalism, even when Big Capitalism has its fingers crossed behind its back.

A purist would say that it is an unacceptable hypocrisy for, say, ExxonMobil to trumpet green initiatives when it spent $16 million between 1998-2005 to fund groups seeking to delegitimize climate science. But, seen from another angle, ExxonMobil’s post-2006 softening of its public stance on global warming—and its overall efforts to portray itself as a kinder, gentler oil conglomerate (ladies and gentlemen, meet Forbes’ 2009 Green Company of the Year)—is a victory for green consciousness. When a habitual polluter and climate-change-denier starts boasting about its efforts to turn algae into oil, it’s a tacit admission that the environmentalists had it right all along—even if the same company is spending millions on Capitol Hill to lobby for offshore drilling.

It says something about America that when companies pay good money to spread a message about themselves, they choose to tell you they’re going green. Sure, maybe they don’t really care about the environment. But their sales pitch assumes that America does. And if the captains of industry tell us that green looks just fine with red, white and blue, who are we to disagree?

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