Environmentalism in Times of Greenwashing

Green Capitalism and Ostensible Ecologism

What is “Greenwashing”?

It is easy to see that nowadays, contrary to the past, green marketing strategies are no longer “niche”, aimed only at very specific and limited market segments, but are becoming increasingly pervasive.

Thus, while in the early 1990s companies’ environmental performance influenced a large part of consumer purchases, in 2015 66% of global consumers (and among millennials, the percentage rose to 72%!) were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

In this respect, greenwashing has been and still is one of the main obstacles to the green transition. Although this concept circulates relatively little in the public debate in Italy, within a capitalist society, it nevertheless signals a key point for a truly conscious discussion of the environmental issue.

But what does “greenwashing” mean? This term is a neologism derived from the figurative expression “whitewashing”, which refers to concealing the truth to protect the reputation of entities, companies, or products. “Greenwashing” is therefore the marketing and communication strategy pursued by companies, institutions or organisations that present their activities as environmentally sustainable, concealing their negative environmental impact.

Coining a neologism is often much more than just creating a new word; it signals the need to reflect on a new problem or, as in this case, to rethink an old problem in a new way. Greenwashing, in fact, is what forces environmentalist thought to question its own nature: what is truly ecological and what is mere façade?

The DuPont Case

Starting from these premises, a possible way to reach a more conscious understanding of environmentalism and what it means to be an environmentalist could consist of retracing the history of the concept of “greenwashing”, identifying some fundamental points.

The American environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay to warn consumers about the mass media bombardment of some companies who, by using the insidious combination of limited public access to information and seemingly unlimited advertising, wanted to present themselves as caring guardians of the environment, although in reality they were pursuing environmentally unsustainable practices.

An emblematic example is the chemical company DuPont, which in 1989 presented its new oil tankers with an advertisement depicting sea animals flapping their fins to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

However, DuPont has been the biggest polluter in the USA: between 1951 and 2003 the company is estimated to have dumped more than 7,000 tonnes of PFOA (a previously unknown chemical) into waterways, contaminating the entire Ohio River and causing serious health damage to all those who drew on those waterways.

It is precisely in the light of this episode that the phenomenon of greenwashing has come to the attention of the institutions, which are obviously interested in regulating the behaviour of companies in this regard.

Is Green Capitalism Possible?

The way the question of greenwashing has been posed so far, the implicit assumption is that it is possible to think of a company capable of putting respect for the environment before its own profit; that is, that sustainable development is possible; or, in more technical terms, that decoupling, the separation of the curve of GDP growth from that of environmental pressures, is feasible.

However, even this assumption cannot and should not be assumed uncritically. In other words, a reflection on the issue of greenwashing that wants to be truly radical should also (and perhaps above all) ask the following question: is green capitalism really possible? And this is precisely the turn that certain environmentalist thinking has taken in recent years.

Perhaps the publicising of the possibility of environmentally friendly capitalism is itself concealment of the truth, because an economic system that allocates profit, not to the next production cycle but something else (in this case, to the preservation and protection of the environment), by definition, is not capitalism.

At this point, we should ask ourselves: is a (coherent) environmentalist thought possible that is not also an anti-capitalist thought?

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