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July 20, 2008



Great to see the back and forth discussion between blogs. It's nice to see some engagement between sustainability blogs. I hope it continues when warranted!

May I suggest . . . some sort of live greenwashing/green business roundtable that those of us in cyberspace can listen in/comment on in real time?


It's all about following the money. If corporations see a chance to make more money by matching more actions with words, they'll do it. Right now, they aren't too sure there's money in dramatic actions.

What will that take? Consumers and B2B customers who understand what to expect from companies who are doing the right thing, and who will choose their products and services accordingly. And more pro-active government policies in promoting green alternatives in the market place.

But the conversation and some of the actions have come a looooong way from just a couple of years ago, and I think it's only go to accelerate exponentially. The public is looking for corporate heroes to save the environment, and barring that, the government.

Sara Sweeney

Thanks Joel -and Jeffrey, for the differing viewpoints on the subject of greenwashing. I do fall, however, more in Joel's "camp." We are in a huge -and I mean huge, paradigm shift, and it's not one that will happen overnight. Sometimes I feel that the Al Gore, and even Jeffrey Hollender, style rhetoric tends to confuse and paralyze people more than inspire them. And that's what we need -to inspire, to instill spirit. I believe it is happening, and that we are seeing change.

Do I wish it were happening faster? Do I think there is some green information out there that is just absolute bunk? Yes, absolutely. But I am grateful for the changes I do see. It is amazing to see how far we've come in just a few years. It will only continue to gain momentum.

I look forward to continued dialogue and education.

Mark W. McElroy

Hi Joel:

You and I have been around this course before. You say incremental forward movement is good; I say not necessarily good enough. Indeed, I say ostensible 'forward' movement by itself may be bad. Why? Two reasons.

One: It may not be 'forward' at all. Indeed, even a lower level of GHG emissions by a company this year as opposed to last, for example, may be less sustainable and less green, not more, since the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere may have declined at twice or thrice the rate of the same company's decline in emissions. Simple measures of (incremental) top-line changes tell us nothing about actual sustainability performance.

Two: The disconnect I explain above between incremental changes in environmental (and social) impacts a company may have on the world around it can have the effect of tolerating, if not encouraging, an interpretation of sustainability that (a) applauds so-called 'improvements' in performance, even as it (b) entails actual decreases in human and environmental well-being. Our collective understanding of sustainability suffers, accordingly.

Call me a nut, but I say that any school of sustainability theory and practice that tolerates and applauds impacts in the world that have the effect of actually degrading human and ecological well-being is morally bankrupt.

Of course I do not accuse you of having lined up intentionally behind such a school; I simply suggest that you have done so unintentionally. But now that I have brought this to your attention, what do you propose to do about it?



Laurens Laudowicz

may i say congratulations? it seems as if in this round Joel is clearly the winner (if there is such thing when it comes to these topics)

Jeffrey Hollender...we are all listening. what is YOUR response?

Reid Lifset

I think that this debate has neglected a crucial aspect of greenwashing: what is the impact on the consumer and the general public? The discussion, as illustrated by the exchange between Joel Makower and Jeffry Hollender has centered on encouragement or discouragement that we (society) provide to companies to pursue sustainability. Clearly an important concern.
But what is the impact on purchasing and product use? Some allege confusion or "totemic" behavior (I think I saw that phrase in a post to Jeffry Hollender's blog). Others are more sanguine. Very few people, however, are systematically investigating this, especially in conjunction with greenwashing debates.

David Wofford

Dear Joel,

Thank you for sharing this debate. I wish Jeffrey's position was more thoughtful, and less angry (given away by the cheapshot at the end).

For me, the biggest problem with greenwashing is that is makes it very hard for consumers to vote for the good guys and discern green products from the semi green and the complete frauds. I can see why this would make Jeffrey very angry in trying to compete in the fog of false green. I also hate the 'natural" label that actually means nothing.

However, this does not speak to your broader point about supporting the general shift toward green and greener products. This is a good thing. It is the compound interest view of life. These things add up.

The GM broadside, a company I have zero love for, gives away the game. The investment in Volt is real. If it succeeds, it will be game changing. We should applaud that as much as condemn the heinous SUV marketing by GM. Does Jeffrey think the answer to past bad corporate behavior is to remain stuck in the past with not possibility of redemption?

I am also not sure I buy the idea that a corporation has to support evey NGO political agenda on the hill in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy on other environmental commitments. We are in a time of necessary reregulation of financial markets, food saftey, the environment, but that doesn't mean there are not legitimate (as well as selfish/corrupt) opposing views.

I look at the Acela, the non-working fast train, that fails because our safety standards required heavier materials. We couldn't just import the trains/technology.. So now we have semi-fast, safer trains that don't run on time and break down. That's a wonderful trade off that make people want to get out of their cars and take the train to New York.

This is a good debate to have. I look forward to Jeffrey's next post.


I think Reid is spot on to bring up the consumer side of the issue. It may, possibly, be irrelevant what the motive are of the corporations, as long as they are producing greener products, but the motives of the consumer do matter, I think.

The whole point to the "green movement" is to live in a manner that is more sustainable and leaves a softer impact on the planet. This requires some critical self-analysis on the part of the individual to identify ways in which they can reduce their impact. However, with greenwashing, consumers by the "green" products because they have become a trend. They may not stop to think about whether buying MORE stuff is actually aiding at all in being a greener person.

It's a tricky conundrum to be sure. After all, if it means a worldwide reduction in GHG emissions, then it's hard to criticize greenwashing to heavily. But it might be worth taking a step back to stop and consider, What Is Sustainability?


it's kinda sad, really, when folks who are actually on the same side, end up wasting time on details instead of using collective braintrust to find better solutions to our problems. greenwashing happens--for some companies going green is part of the raison d'etre...for others, it's an attempt to be part of a fad to keep from losing customers. those latter companies will probably have to go greener by default, as the price of oil makes us all look at our carbon output as a matter of reducing costs.

still, sophisticated consumers today will probably not wait for those companies to get a grip--we want real green, and i ain't talking money.

if you have time, i'd love your outlook on a book i recently read, gary hirshberg's book, stirring it up.

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