Twice in the last two days I've encountered the term "greenwashing," a concept with which I was previously unfamiliar. Greenwashing, the practice of a company promoting false or exaggerated environmental claims in order to increase profits, can also be applied to other causes exploited for corporate game; KFC has recently been accused of pinkwashing, while (Red)washing charges have been leveled at Gap and Apple. My own employer is often accused of such practices, which is the context in which I first learned this term.
I'm struggling with this. I don't like the idea of exploiting consumer idealism for profit; my last employer did this on a regular basis, on a much smaller scale. We'd often be told to organize book drives for local charities, in order to increase the number of books (or toys) our customers purchased. However, we would not accept donations that customers brought in or purchased elsewhere. Every time I'd head complaints about this, however, I'd have to ask, do the children receiving these donations care if the company sending them had ulterior motives? Also, a struggling company is always going to try to convince customers to spend more; if they can't appeal to anything but a customer's charitable instincts, doesn't that do more good than finding a way to convince them to spend more on themselves?
When it comes to campaigns like product (Red), detractors claim that marketing the trendiness or sex appeal of social causes does more to increase the profits for the corporations, than it does for the charities they partner with. This criticism seems foolish; Bono's entire pitch for corporations participating in (Red) is based on the idea that participating in the fight against AIDS can help businesses. If these companies aren't donating enough of their profits for the satisfaction of some critics, boycotting these products isn't likely to encourage them to donate more. I think that any money generated by such campaigns is better than no money at all; it's impossible to gauge how much awareness this creates, as well. Will a consumer who has spent a little more for a product that donates to a social cause feel that they've done enough, and stop donating, or feel good, and donate more in order to continue feeling good? What is the harm in encouraging our consumption to be directed in ways that are, even marginally, mitigating to the damage our way of life does to the earth and the developing world?
Of course, there are other examples of harmful practices that are cloaked in claims of corporate responsibility. KFC's partnership to help breast cancer research, for example, encourages behavior that probably leads to breast cancer, (and is, inarguably, unhealthy.) BP's "Beyond Petroleum" ad campaign was deceitful, at best, even before the oil spill. And corporations aren't the only ones guilty of this; Israel's 60-year anniversary spawned an ad campaign to encourage tourism with the unconscionably insensitive slogan "No one belongs here more than you." When advertising is so disingenuous that it actively encourages purchases or behavior that is outright harmful to the buyer or to others, especially when it is done in the name of charity, conservation or any good cause, I think it crosses the line.
What would you say, Mr. President? Would you rather Americans bought fair-trade, shade-grown coffee from Starbucks and product (red) shirts from Gap, or that we saved our money, purchased less, and donated to these causes directly? Do we have to bring down corporations for their harmful practices, or pressure them, through our spending, to change their ways? Is a good deed less "good" if it is done for selfish reasons?