Dear EarthTalk: I hear the term “greenwashing” a lot these days but am still not sure exactly what it means. Can you enlighten? -- Ruth Markell, Indianapolis, IN
In essence, greenwashing involves falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations. CorpWatch, a non-profit dedicated to keeping tabs on the social responsibility (or lack thereof) of U.S.-based companies, characterizes greenwashing as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”
Greenpeace is leading the charge against
One of the groups leading the charge against greenwashing is Greenpeace. “Corporations are falling all over themselves,” reports the group, “to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”
Greenpeace launched its Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 to call out bad actors and help consumers make better choices. The most common greenwashing strategy, the group says, is when a company touts an environmental program or product while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.
Another involves what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster”: using targeted advertising or public relations to exaggerate a green achievement so as to divert attention from actual environmental problems—or spending more money bragging about green behavior than on actual deeds. In some cases, companies may boast about corporate green commitments while lobbying behind the scenes against environmental laws.
Greenpeace also urges vigilance about green claims that brag about something the law already requires: “For example, if an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.”
For consumers, the best way to avoid getting “greenwashed” is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just trying to look that way to make more money. Look beyond advertising claims, read ingredient lists or ask employees about the real skinny on their company’s environmental commitment.
Also, look for labels that show a given offering has been vetted by a reliable third-party. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. Just because a label says “made with organic ingredients” or “all-natural” does not mean the product qualifies as Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the hype.
Even some eco-labels are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, look it up on Ecolabel Index, a global directory tracking 400+ different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors. The free online resource provides information on which company or group is behind each certification and whether or not independent third-party assessments are required.
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the prognosis for Hawaii’s coral reefs in the face of global warming, invasive algae and other environmental threats? -- Bill Weston, San Francisco, CA
Poisonous run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters
Despite sweeping protections put in place near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency for large swaths of marine ecosystems around the Hawaiian Islands, things are not looking good for Hawaii’s coral reefs. Poisonous run-off, rising ocean levels, increasingly acidic waters and overfishing are taking their toll on the reefs and the marine life they support. Biologists are trying to remain optimistic that there is still time to turn things around, but new threats to Hawaii’s corals are only aggravating the situation.
To wit, a previously undocumented cyanobacterial fungus that grows through photosynthesis is spreading by as much as three inches per week on corals along the otherwise pristine North Shore of Kauai. “There is nowhere we know of in the entire world where an entire reef system for 60 miles has been compromised in one fell swoop,” biologist Terry Lilley told The Los Angeles Times. “This bacteria has been killing some of these 50- to 100-year-old corals in less than eight weeks.” He adds that the strange green fungus affects upwards of five percent of the corals in famed Hanalei Bay and up to 40 percent of the coral in nearby Anini Bay, with neighboring areas “just as bad, if not worse.” Lilly worries that the entire reef system surrounding Kauai may be losing its ability to fend off pathogens.
Meanwhile, some 60 miles to the east across the blue Pacific, an invasive algae introduced for aquaculture three decades ago in Oahu's Kāne‘ohe Bay is also spreading quickly. Biologists are concerned because it forms thick tangled mats that soak up oxygen in the water needed by other plants and animals, in turn converting coral reefs there into smothering wastelands.
“This and other invasive algal species...don’t belong in Hawai‘i,” says Eric Conklin, Hawaii director of marine services for The Nature Conservancy, which works to protect ecologically important lands and waters worldwide. He adds that there are not enough plant-eating fish to keep them under control.
Biologists are working hard to battle the algae in and around Kāne‘ohe Bay. Conklin and his colleagues from the Conservancy have joined forces with researchers from the state of Hawaii to develop an inexpensive new technology, dubbed the Super Sucker, which uses barge-based hoses and pumps to vacuum the invasive algae away without disturbing the underlying coral. Once divers clear a given reef of algae, they then stock it with native sea urchins raised in the state’s marine lab that can help keep new algal outbreaks in check. The system has been so successful at reducing invasive algae at Kāne‘ohe Bay that the state has begun producing tens of thousands of sea urchins for similar “outplanting” projects on other coral reefs around Oahu and beyond that are threatened by invasive algae.
Fast-growing algae and pathogens are only part of the problem. Decades of overfishing have reduced the biodiversity on and around coral reefs, reducing their ecological integrity and making them more vulnerable to climate change. Higher water temperatures and rising sea levels, two of the more dramatic symptoms of global warming, are hastening the bleaching of some particularly vulnerable reefs that have evolved over thousands of years.
CONTACT: The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org.