Home > Discourse, Incentives, Information > Reverse Greenwashing; or, It’s Not Easy Being Green

Reverse Greenwashing; or, It’s Not Easy Being Green

Part of the reason it is difficult to advance environmental protection policies is that it is difficult to inform and educate oneself on environmental issues. The issues have substantial scientific components, usually requiring specialized knowledge. Because humans live in the environment and most all of our actions affect the environment in some way, environmental proposals also often have the feature of affecting these many areas of our lives. By contrast, the conventional way of thinking about most types of legislative proposals– for example, health care, narcotic policy, or foreign policy– is that they are compartmentalized, directly comparable only as to their price. Environmental policies typically require expenditures too, but they are not so easily compartmentalized, and their effects more apparently spill over to other areas of policy and life. This results in incentives for and allegations of the politicization of science, which feeds back into the initial point: it is difficult to inform and educate oneself on environmental concerns, and this is an impediment to effective policy decisions. Typically, these informational hurdles result in inaction, but they also can result in bad policy. Federal ethanol subsidies– which had many unintended, negative consequences while failing to achieve environmental benefits– are an example of the latter. See here; see also here.

Because the public environmental conversation is about the underlying information itself, rather than mere policy alternatives, and because the underlying facts, theories, data, and other information are shifting, incomplete, and contested, a proposition merely needs to sound convincing to be convincing, and just a little bit of information goes a long way. For example, I have argued that more breweries ought to package their products in cans, rather than bottles, because aluminum cans block beer-destructing light better than even brown glass bottles and are much more amenable to recycling than colored glass. Does this theory hold water (or beer), environmentally or fermentologically? It sounds good, but I don’t know for sure. Some breweries recently have adopted canning for reasons similar to these, while others decided to keep bottling after rejecting canning on the basis of other environmental and consumer information. Compare this and this with this.

There seems to be at once a lack of information and an overabundance of it when it comes to environmental issues, and everything is contestable by anyone. (It is easy enough for anyone to undermine the findings of a rigorous study by an esteemed scientist with a simple charge of political or financial bias: “Well of course her study supports the existence of global warming. If it wasn’t real, she’d be out of a job. Plus, look who’s funding her grant!”). Cf. here. It is not surprising, then, that something like greenwashing would arise. Generally, greenwashing is the false presentation of an environmentally friendly image for gain. See, e.g.here and here. Made possible by the informational confusion surrounding environmental issues, greenwashing typically is an active practice that attempts to garner goodwill and market share for consumer products and services based on a false “green” image, although examples of passive greenwashing exist as well. These misinformation campaigns prey upon those who genuinely are eager to make environmentally conscious choices but, like most everyone else, find it difficult to verify an entity’s environmental claims or grasp accurately environmental issues more broadly. Legitimate counterarguments to pro-environmental positions exist, but just like pro-environmental statements (both genuine and specious), they easily can misdirect and confuse and are difficult to evaluate. A letter to the editor the Wall Street Journal printed last month provides an example.

Regarding Margo Thorning’s “Pull the Plug on Electric Car Subsidies” (op-ed, March 24): Finally, someone gets sensible about electric cars. They don’t protect the environment. They are less efficient than gasoline cars and generate a lot more carbon dioxide per unit power. The engineering is straightforward. From power plant to the road, electric cars are only a little more efficient than their gasoline equivalent. This ignores the need for heat and the lessened efficiency of batteries when the temperature drops. Even this small gain is negated by the extra battery weight. The very considerable energy needed to produce the battery almost always goes unmentioned. As Ms. Thorning says, “half of all U.S. electricity is generated by coal,” which produces more CO2 per unit of delivered energy than does petroleum or natural gas. The electric car does not “protect the environment,” it hurts it badly if one considers the production of CO2 as detrimental. Of course, this is the viewpoint of an engineer. Environmentalists have a moral approach. Morality trumps thermodynamics in today’s political milieu.

Ken Cowans Fullerton, Calif.

Letters to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal A 18, Weds. March 30, 2011. Cowans’ letter was the lead letter that day, ahead of one responding to the same article from Robbie Diamond, identified as the President and CEO of the Electrification Coalition. Besides the slightly ambiguous self-identification (“this is the viewpoint of an engineer”), a reader has little basis on which to evaluate the authority of Cowans’ claims– and Cowans made a number of bold, sweeping claims. (This appears to be an example of the problematic practice of giving equal footing to opposing views, even though one view may be a decided minority position, thereby distorting the discourse. See here.)

Not everyone agrees that science can or should transcend politics, but when even the well-intentioned regularly find themselves misinformed or otherwise uncertain, some kind of authoritative arbiter of information or informative arbiter of authority would seem necessary. Uncertainty in a particular field alone does not indicate a problem, especially where information is scant. Where information is plentiful, however, a persistent uncertainty can lead to frustrating paralysis and, when policy makers do eventually take action, as in the ethanol subsidy situation referenced above, low-quality outcomes can result.

  1. mb
    May 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    This is super interesting. I’m not sure I agree with some of the premises of what you have here.

    Certainly PART of the reason that environmental policies pose a challenge has to do with knowledge and ignorance, but I don’t see quite the distinction that you make between this and the other policy examples you provide. I mean, drug policy and foreign policy certainly require specialized knowledge (or ought to require this knowledge), and cannot be reducible to costs and benefits.

    It could be that the challenge is primarily epistemological – and that it has to do with what KIND of knowledge certain policies demand. For example, perhaps in the realm of foreign policy, what is required is merely factual knowledge – we have to go out and look, say, at how poor people really are, before we decide how much money to allocate to foreign aid, or just how socialist an insurgency in Latin America is before we decide to invade. And maybe in the realm of environmental policy the slippery-ness results from the fact that we have to rely, in large part, on speculative knowledge – “what would happen if?”-type scenarios into which we plug in the scientific knowledge that we do have.

    But I don’t think that the primary difficulty is about knowing. There are two ways of understanding your comments about science and politics. The first is the idea that “objective” scientific information abounds, and yet the basis on which we choose our policies is political, not epistemological. The second is that there is no objective data, that all information is imbued already with politics, long before the adoption of any particular policy. I guess my lingering question is whether there really is a “persistent uncertainty” with regard to information, or if the challenges aren’t more about cost after all?

  2. AD
    May 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you for pushing back on this, mb. This post is probably the least ready-to-go one I’ve pushed out, but I sat on it for over a month and was ready to be done with it. Your comments are helpful in honing in on what’s going on in this area.

    The distinction I was trying to draw between environmental policy issues and those of the examples of foreign and narcotics policy was that there is more of a ripple effect with the former. Simplistically, the effect of environmental regulations on our lives is broader in scope than laws and regulations in other traditional policy areas. Every policy decision has effects and externalities that go beyond its strict subject matter, this happens to a much greater extent (and maybe in a different way) in the environmental context. The result is that environmental policy decisions are open to attack from many more quarters than other sorts of policy decisions.

    I then was hoping to confine the information and knowledge discussion to the environmental area and look at why it is such a challenging and frustrating area, seemingly at a very basic level of information and knowledge. (In other words, I don’t think the knowledge issue is what sets environmental policy apart; rather, it is a feature of environmental policy, discussed on its own.)

    I don’t know if I understand all the implications of your closing question, but I think your final paragraph gets at what I was trying to describe. The contestability within the environmental discussion seems to be both greater and more fundamental than in other areas. In a sense, it does not matter whether “‘objective’ scientific information abounds,” because it is so open to attack on subjective grounds. It also is open to attack on what appears to be objective grounds (“uncertainty exists!”), which, while being technically accurate, warp the scientific and general discussions by overemphasizing their weight. Individual humans and legislatures make decisions based on science that is not 100% certain without batting an eye. Yet in this area, 100% certainty is demanded. Surely a delay tactic by opponents, but it also is facially unrealistic.

    I think there is objective scientific information, and I think there is a lot of it. I don’t think science should drive policy to the exclusion of other values and concerns, but that’s different than the science itself being open to criticism on policy grounds.

    Are the challenges more about cost? Cost certainly is a huge factor, but I don’t think cost and uncertainty is a useful dichotomy, and it wasn’t one I was trying to present.

    The environmental conversation seems much more muddied and dysfunctional than other policy discussions.

    Thank you for helping to sharpen this particular discussion.

  3. AD
    June 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    As it turns out, there may be a reversal of greenwashing that is not contrary to environmental protection as a previously cited friend, reader, and pro writer explained yesterday:

    “In one presentation, several [Yellowstone Business Partnership] members professed the beneficial role greenwashing can play in effecting change. Greenwashing is when an organization spreads misinformation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. It’s generally understood to be a problematic practice, but the exchange among those participating in the presentation raised the optimistic assessment that consumers have an increased knowledge of sustainable practices. With that knowledge, they can more easily recognize false claims.

    “The presenters argued that companies making claims to green practices are just the sort to begin efforts to actualize these claims. In her lunch address, Williams remarked that ‘business has driven the levels of green,’ with greenwashing functioning as part of the process.”

    The full story is available here.

  4. mb
    June 4, 2011 at 2:46 am

    I think I didn’t present my comment the right way, possibly because I’m confused about the issue in general, but also because upon your further clarification I realize I have some further disagreements with regard to the framing (not with the actual greenwashing content stuff). My point, I think, is that the question of whether there is “persistant uncertainty” with regard to environmental data is a question about $$$, not a question about information.

    • AD
      June 6, 2011 at 10:54 pm

      mb, I agree that there are financial interests at stake. People have all kinds of motivations for being less than wholly truthful in their discursive dealings, and having a financial stake in a matter long has been a reason to shade one’s view of that matter, and in turn, the way one treats information regarding that matter.

      Focusing on financial interests (as amongst other sorts of interests), though, it seems worth observing that there are financial interests on all sides that might (fairly or unfairly) give rise to a charge of bias on the facts. As mentioned in the main post, the structure and sources of funding for climate and other environmental researchers is one example. Surely the longstanding investments of those favoring the status quo on energy (i.e., oil interests) is another example. So too with perhaps secondary groups, like academics making a living developing fields like “environmental studies” and entrepreneurs taking advantage of the newer consumer taste for all things green (e.g., hybrid and electric car manufacturers, environmental consultants, the carbon offset business, providers of “organic” products, and ecotourism, among many others). Even corporations have a role to play in this area, see https://questionspresented.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/corporate-responsibility-and-the-man-in-the-mirror, as well as politicians who stake out pro- (and anti-) environmental stances to feed off popular constituent persuasions.

      In other words, if the point is that money influences what people choose to say and hear about the environment, that’s fine, but I don’t know where it gets us, because everybody’s on the take.

      “Whether there is ‘persistent uncertainty’ with regard to environmental data” may be a question about money (again, among other interests), but the result remains informational. Surely we have to sort through the competing interests of all varieties to deal with the condition of the information, but what I think I’m trying to get at is figuring out how we cut through those interests on a system level, and how, on the individual level, one who at least aims to step outside her selfish interests can evaluate competing information on the way to making decisions.

      Obviously a strain of thought still very much in progress on my end. Thanks for pushing me.

  5. Jules
    June 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

    “(This appears to be an example of the problematic practice of giving equal footing to opposing views, even though one view may be a decided minority position, thereby distorting the discourse. See here.)”

    Interesting discourse, here, Al. Regarding the above quotation: This very aspect of the greenwashing debate arouse at the conference I covered last weekend. It seems that the notion of “fair and balance” (not necessarily referring to FOX but rather the notion in general) provides opportunity for disseminating information that is relevant but not necessarily of greater weight and merit, therefor creating illusions of two equally veracious stances. It’s all troubling and does in fact create what appears, at this point, to be an awfully steep and unknown mountain to climb in order to achieve any sort of productive gains in the effort to mitigate the tremendous environmental calamities intensified by all of us living our lives just as we have for so long. Thanks for speaking to this subject!

  6. AD
    July 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Professor Jonathan Adler reports on a working paper from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project that may help add some rigor to the topic I attempted to introduce in the main post here and attempted to clarify in the comments. The paper examines public perception of climate change risks, finding, among other things, a negative correlation between scientific literacy and belief that climate change poses a catastrophic threat.

    The abstract:

    “The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, ‘tragedy of the risk-perception commons,’ we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.”

    The paper is available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1871503.

  7. AD
    July 20, 2011 at 10:09 am

    A reader directed me to this update on a report on organic farming in Scientific American, which plays into the informational issues I’ve tried (with the aid of helpful comments) to get at in the above post:

    “Science writer Christie Wilcox lays out the top myths about organic farming in Scientific American, and they might surprise you:

    “It’s not really pesticide-free. Certified organic farms have to use pesticides from natural sources, rather than man-made — but those aren’t necessarily any less dangerous or harmful. Large organic farms still spray crops with pesticides and fungicides. And they have to use more to get the same effect.

    “It’s not really better for you. Even if you’re getting your produce from a totally pesticide-free farm, that doesn’t mean it’s free of pathogens. And there’s no evidence that organic food is any more nutritious or beneficial than conventionally farmed food.

    “It’s not really better for the planet. Organic farming produces less food per acre, so it’s not an efficient use of land. And Wilcox objects to organic farming’s resistance to genetically modified organisms, which she says could help improve farming practices and mitigate world hunger.”

    Reported here. Full article here.

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