Greenwashing is Lack of Self-Esteem

GreenwashingBirgitte Rasine is the chief evolution officer of LUCITÀ, a non greenwashing pioneer in socially responsible design & communications.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a therapist, or known someone who has. Raise your other hand if you’ve ever heard that little voice inside your head telling you you’re not quite so good, not quite so beautiful, not quite so successful, as person X or company Y.

OK ready? now that we’ve all got our hands up in the air, we can all do the wave. You might laugh, but we really should—to clear away all the smoke and circumstance pumped into our media airwaves by a seductive green mist that’s settling heavier and thicker on web sites, print advertisements, TV commercials, product packaging, press releases, and yes especially blogs (not this one though). We’ve all heard the term: greenwashing.

SourceWatch, an initiative of the Center for Media and Democracy, defines the term as “…the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.”

Plenty has been written about how to recognize greenwashing, how to avoid it, and sadly, how to do it without getting caught. But that’s all after the fact. For me the key question is, why does it happen in the first place? Lots of opinion abounds on this too: it’s greed. It’s fear. It’s jumping on the green bandwagon. It’s not wanting to be left behind even if you don’t have the resources to truly green your products and services. It’s all this, but at the core of it, when you really dig down, it becomes clear that greenwashing is really driven by a lack of self-esteem.

Yes, companies have feelings too. They’re the collective sentiments of an organization’s management, staff and consultants. When an organization or company feels it’s not smart enough to innovate or re-engineer its existing products or services, not honest enough to back its communications with accuracy, truth and integrity, not wealthy enough to invest in more sustainable supply chains or processes, not dedicated enough to draft and enforce environmental and social responsibility policies, it’s suffering from organizational low self-esteem and self-respect, which are immediately mirrored in its relationship with its own employees, its customers, clients, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders.

When an organization greenwashes its communications to the outside world, the message it sends out is, we’re not good enough to be green, but we’d like to be. That “green wanna-be” attitude is a killer. It only reinforces the corporate psyche that produced it in the first place.

All the classic symptoms are there. The inability to appreciate and celebrate one’s own virtues and worth. The envy of others who’ve “made it.” The negative attitude toward progress and innovation. The lack of drive or energy to inspire one’s own people. The resistance to change one’s way of thinking and operating. The fear of leaving one’s “comfort zone” regardless of how damaging that comfort zone is—especially deadly are the comfort zones of companies that pull in piles of cash from unsustainable products or services, because then the deception is perfect. And much harder to justify leaving.

As long as greenwashing works, the greenwashers will continue doing it. They’ll never break the cycle of negativity and they’ll never feel good about themselves.

You see, this is why it is a critical responsibility that you, the reader of this blog and a citizen of this planet, hold. Become knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of greenwashing. Learn to recognize the signs so that you too can help protect the perpetrators from themselves. Demand of the companies that greenwash, that they respect themselves, you and their other stakeholders more, and that they tell you the truth, not lies—whether white, green or any other color of the business rainbow. Tell them you’d rather have substance than fluff, honesty rather than PR, and that you’ll respect and honor them back. You’ll stand by them when they go through their hard times, and celebrate with them when they help change the world.

They say in therapy the only person who can truly change you is you. This is just as true for companies as it is for the individual human being. But the companies, just like that cousin or sibling of yours who’s got everything going for them but just can’t seem to get out of their funk, need a little push. They need to hear from you how much you think they have to contribute to the planet and society, and how much more successful they’ll be if they truly go green.

So talk to them. Give them a reason to change.

Photo credit: Melissa Goldstein at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Uncle B

    The recent stunning fall in GM’s market position and share value is the direct and immediate reaction of younger, educated, savvy buyers, and amounts to a kick in the nuts for ‘ole tymey Mr. Macho’ management that spends more money on development for a 620hp, 8mpg Corvette (named after a WWII boat?) and the infamous Hummer? (comes from factory with glove box stuffed with free Viagra and penis enhancer samples?). The Volt, the one redeeming thing they did is still a ‘Vapor-Ware’ car with insignificant research and funding as the company sinks in the oil polluted sunset of American historical times. Proof that ‘Green washing ‘ doesn’t fool anyone!

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    “Yes, companies have feelings too.” Great line…makes me think of Johnny 5 in the old Short Circuit movies.

    Seriously, I am not so sure that greenwashing is always a matter of low corporate “self-esteem.” In a great many cases in can be and likely is, but I do not think that the desire for ever-greater profit (i.e., greed) is equal to a lack of self-esteem/self-respect. If green became less lucrative, even a source of loss, most companies would drop it like a stinky sock.

  3. Aurelia

    I see “greenwashing” everyday in advertisements.
    Just yesterday I was listening to the radio and there was an ad about a new SUV. As I was listening, I thought the nerve to introduce a new SUV in the midst of a global crisis… Then the announcer started talking about how the factory was “green”, and all the waste was “reused”. It was very unconvincing, but I could see how most of the general population would swallow it, and buy the SUV even though the greenest SUV plant (an oxymoron in itself) wouldn’t help us reduce carbon emissions 90% in 7 years.
    Clearly, the best defense against “greenwashing” is education, and teaching the public about what really is green and what obviously is not.

  4. Birgitte Rasine

    reply to all: thanks for your comments! to Justin: as with anything, there isn’t an “always” or a “never” so in that sense I would agree, it’s not just the self-esteem issue in all cases. Sometimes it’s a variety of factors that play off one another, including greed or an unsated desire for profit. In my experience however, having seen, listened to, and worked with the companies that I have, in many sectors and of many sizes, that seems to be the underlying element that creeps in, ever so subtly. But I do think self-esteem and self-respect are tied into greed; not equal to it as you say, but related. Greed means you’re not happy with what you have, and by extension with what you do or who you are. What do you think?

  5. Simran

    Wow, what an insightful way to look at the phenomenon. Thank you, Birgitte! The “why?” is such an essential component that we do tend to overlook. And I appreciate the fact that you insert humanity back into corporate citizens. Businesses are a collective conscience of sorts and trying to understand their psychology (beyond increasing shareholder value) may be the most powerful way to bring about change.

  6. Justin Van Kleeck

    Birgitte, I agree that you can in fact connect greed to low self-esteem if you keep going at it. That is, if you define “low self-esteem” as a general feeling of incompleteness. If you do not feel complete and at peace with (and within) yourself, if you are not truly content, then you will always be desiring more…and so be greedy. I guess that desire/greed, like so many other things in our lives, all grows from the root cause of a lack of self-knowledge and true peace. Greenwashing is just one of the myriad phenomena we could trace back to self-inadequacy.

    So thank you for a really great post. A very philosophical discussion, if we keep going and enlarge our perspectives!!!

  7. Christina

    Interesting idea, but to be honest I think it is mostly for profit that the idea of “Green” is tacked onto so many things now. What better excuse to mark something up or move more units than the idea that it is environmentally friendly?

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