greenwashing (1)

The first of several takes on the topic…


I am irritated by many green, natural, plant-based essential oils; source material is irrelevant to skin cells and neuroreceptors. They don’t care whether the stuff came out/from a plant, a test-tube, an animal, or outer space. All they do is undergo a chemical reaction. Many of my worst irritants are all, by the way, “green.” Hasn’t stopped me being green, advocating green-ness.


Obviously, it’s entirely up to you the individual consumer what you want from a product, and want to avoid, as you’re the one using it! It is your free choice. Axiomatic re. “free” and “choice.” But I’m afraid it’s simply not going to be as clear-cut as “this is the good list” and “this is the bad list,” because there are no such definitive lists in existence.


I’m somewhat allergic to purity rhetoric, seeing as how I’m a mixed mongrel and we lost several parts of the family–various times and places and reasons–thanks to extreme obsessions with “purity”. I worry about obsessions with purity and puritanicalism. It’s a bigger issue; and not unrelated, as Third Reich pro-purity ideology was also expressed in health and body-care issues. Including some companies that are still around today.


Scepticism: I refuse to buying overpriced stuff, and refuse to buy into an all-or-nothing approach to organic (and indeed natural). Can’t do that and retain a functioning brain. Rationality is incompatible with blind belief and strict adherence to cults.


Want monotheism? Join a religion.


Mythification is dangerous. While it’s fascinating and fun to watch the move from pseudo-factoid (or data-gap, speculation, hypothesis … let alone rumour, urban myth, and marketing lie…) to Gospel Truth, and to see how this process works; sometimes one has a higher moral obligation to The Truth, and to myth-busting in its service. Though that’s not as fun. Higher moral obligations so rarely are.

O I do bore myself on that, and must bore others, but if I can save but one poor soul from ignorance and folly and turn them towards the True Path of Reason. Including maintaining the proper distinctions between “cause”, “consequence”, “coincidence”, and “correlation”.

Recalls “Peter Pan”: every time a child says “I don’t believe in fairies”, a fairy dies. So all together now: please clap your hands for Reason …


[The following was in response to two items of news: the first, that Burt’s Bees had “sold out” to Clorox and that Tom’s of Maine were owned by Colgate-Palmolive (c/o Alternet… usually occupying a place in my personal fiability rankings somewhere around the National Enquirer. But hey. I digress); the second, that the green market is big business–as witness, Organic Industry Structure: Acquisitions by the Top 30 Food Producers in North America (Philip P. Howard, Michigan State U).]

If you’re a small independent company, customers love you. Then you do well, and many customers will hate you because you’re not small anymore. Worse still, get bought by a bigger company. Even if this works out to the benefit of many if the bigger company or group starts actually greening-up. Sure, there’s money in greenwashing. But see Clorox producing GreenWorks: that’s (amongst other things) a nice case of democratic greenness. Democratic greenness is why I don’t buy from fancy spas, expensive brands, or exclusive boutiques. Or, indeed, shops (real or online) that only sell HE stuff. Saffronrouge, I’m looking at you ( Just saying: there is an idea/argument on the other side (NB this is an idea, NOT an opinion or view). See also: this MUA thread  (2010-05-03).

Wanna get green bang for your buck? Donate it straight to the source, to charity and development projects. And save more so as to donate more by spending less.


Here’s the problem. “Toxic” and “poison” are legally-defined terms in environmental law (depending on the country), and on substances permitted in goods for human consumption (mainly food; some regulation, again depending on country, on cosmetics, skincare, hair stuff, etc.). And there are concrete factual definitions, in medicine, biochemistry, and the environmental sciences. The latter (science) are the basis for the former (law). There are also about a million definitions and uses running around the net, urban myth, popular folklore, and so on. (My grandmothers believed the most extraordinary things–while in other respects being very sensible, rational, intelligent people.) Popular definitions (and fear-mongering) have been used and abused on a massive scale recently; that I’m personally aware of, over at least the last 20 years.

Partly out of genuine concern for fellow human beings and the environment, of course, and especially in countries (ex. the USA) where government authority (inc. legislature) is tainted by vested interests and their pressure groups: so making money is more important than protecting citizens, land, and planet.

But partly also to make money, greenwash, and manipulate consumers. I remember the first time I felt manipulated by marketing. I was angry. I also remember, more recently, stopping buying Burt’s Bees when their advertising turned aggressive, nasty, and untrue. You’ll meet many views and opinions and loves and hates. Online, in shops, from sales assistants and beauticians, from doctors, … Many of them are subjective, irrational, based on primal fears rather than any actual evidence. It can be difficult to differentiate the personal and rhetorical, from, well, (cough) the truth.

It can also be difficult because–on some matters–there is no absolute truth right now. Because it takes time to test theories out properly–in practice, in experiments, gather results, interpret them, put them together with data from other experiments, do meta-data studies, publish, pass the test of being peer-reviewed in journals, and so on.

In most legislatures there is still some obligation for academic science to be free and fair. Again, depends on the country or region: but honestly not all places work like the Great Powers during the Cold War… though I’m all for suspicion and scepticism!!!


Rights and wrongs of buying into all sorts of ludicrous BS?

1. Well, it’s a free world and people can spend their own hard-earned cash on whatever takes their fancy.

2. I remain to be convinced
(a) that such things work,
(b) that they work for the reasons given by the manufacturers,
(c) that they’re not quackery and baloney at a level below that of 19th c. 2nd-rate newspaper back page ads (and targeted at a similar level of audience / insulting them and their intelligence to a similar degree).

3. Take for example a certain recently-encounterd product that claimed to work by galvanism. Galvanism??? Think patent medicines, Mme Blavatskt, and–well–most recent success story was Frankenstein’s monster. So: good results in 200-year old fiction. Main more serious actual use is unrelated to cosmetic claims: see (Wikipedia etc and) See also, on pseudoscience and other dangerous BS: Bad Science (Ben Goldacre) The Beauty Brains (blog and forum). I rest my case. Just because I’m green doesn’t mean I’m a sucker, blinkered, in blind faith, or a brain-off/-dead zombie. One can be green and brain-active.

It’s all a bit embarrassing, and rapidly declines into the irrational on both sides, but green people come out of natural-vs-unnatural consumerism discussions looking too good. One can still argue, and find (proper) research data and (actual science/medical) journal articles to support the green case. See for example this discussion thread on MUA (2010-08-18).


(1) Greenwashing is often a cynical move to make money and move into/take control of an emerging potential market. A company “going green” purely for reasons of profit is not doing so for good ethical reasons. Case in point, the kind of greenwashing that leads to massive production of soy and oil-palms for green-looking products (Dove c/o Unilever, Aveeno c/o J&J). Result? Massive damage to Amazonian and south-east Asian rainforest. Ditto, pseudo-organic overproduction, of the sort you’re calling “Chi-ganic” …

(2) There’s the question of ends justifying means. Direct intended consequences, vs. accidental items leading to the end result. In these cases of greenwashing, the intended primary result is profit: short-term profit from fashion, long-term profit from steady market share through seducing consumer loyalty. The secondary result being good for the environment is a bonus: good, but still just the cherry on the top.

(3) Yes, some companies sell out to get better distribution and a bigger market share and grow. And whether that’s the primary motive or not, let’s not be naive: businesses are businesses, whatever sort they are. They need to make a living. They employ people. Whatever their personal, ethical, etc. reasons might be for preferring to work in (or run) that company and that sort of company rather than any other, all the company employees are working there to survive: have a roof over one’s head, food on the table, health care, ability to have some leisure, all those things that constitute life …

(4) Selling out should always be looked at on a case by case basis, looking at all the conditions of the sale (some of which may remain confidential for some time). A “sell-out” company can retain considerable or total autonomy, with no effect on how they work (or even a move for the better).

(5) It can be a very clever subversive move: change from within, beat your enemy on his own ground, know him better that he knows himself. Remember, a mega-corp gets something out of the deal too besides market conquest: new techniques and technology, testing to see if the green is economically sustainable & can be spread to the whole group, getting a share in suppliers.

It’s become common for big groups to have a less centralised structure, with different policies for different constituent parts: ex. in the L’Oréal group, The Body Shop has continued its no-animal-testing policy, a sale condition. In exchange, L’Oréal has gained knowledge on cruelty-free testing and access to TBS networks of producers. And they get to monitor TBS as a test case, dipping their toes in the market, and see concrete proof that green works. On Burt’s Bees and Clorox: note that while Clorox has a horrid record on animal testing and environmental pollution (ooh, and not too human-friendly products either), they also make Green Works (no animal testing, environmentally sound) and it’s been a huge success for them.

The last 20 years are historically significant in two new way of running a mega-corp:

–“federations”: 1997, Aveda bought by Estee Lauder; 2000, TBS by L’Oréal.
–pseudo-umbrella-groups with semi-autonomous units: 1990, Origins by EL; 2008, Clorox and Green Works.
–Kraft, Hershey’s, Nestlé doing a combination of the two, aiming to green the parent corporate image, whilst emphasizing the independence of the subsidiaries.
–and Hain Celestial have emerged as a green mega-corp!

Good article here:

(6) Back to means and ends. Buying ethical–environmental, vegan, sustainably-produced, cruelty-free, fair to workers, recycled & recyclable, etc.–is growing, but slowly, and many people will always buy whatever is closest to hand, cheap, readily-available in their nearest shop. Many people are not well-off, work long hours, & have little time for shopping let alone researching everything they buy. People who don’t have the time, inclination, or energy to read labels on products in a shop.

Yes, in an ideal world, everyone would always read every label, etc. But that’s not practical reality. And risks giving environmentalists a bad name: middle-class, leisured, better-educated, preaching & patronising.

Going back to take-overs. However cynical and manipulative it is in other respects, it’s a good thing if mega-corporate greenwashing produces an end result of ethically better products on the market. Better still if ethical products are accessible to everyone, everywhere: no longer something special or minority, but normal, taking up the majority or totality of shop shelves. That’s only going to be possible if the green goes mainstream: the new conventional.

The day that take-over happens everywhere from Wal-Mart upwards, we’ve won.

click for video

Image at top: also Advertising Standards Canada (not affiliated, honest guv… though an ardent fangirl)

One comment

  1. gingerama

    Update: some more on selling out and Big Sharks starting to wear luaus:
    Not yet available in Canada, there’s a new Neutrogena Naturals line out in the US.
    On the one hand: like the J&J naturals, this is greenwash.
    On the other: though the parent company–Neutrogena–and umbrella group–Johnson & Johnson–aren’t, this new line is cruelty-free.

    By the time this new line arrives in Canada, it’ll have been tried and tested and reviewed a bit more anyway, and we may have some more feedback on how green vs. how greenwashed it actually is (my money would be on “a bit of both”: this is still a company, whose business is making money).

    Pros, though, just on paper:
    1. ingredients and formulation look good.
    2. ethics-wise: this isn’t the first time a bigger company has started greening up, by developing a new greener line, ticking all the boxes (sustainable production, cruelty-free, biodegradable packaging, low-carbon production, etc., etc.). Which is obviously a good thing: for the environment, for educating the public, and for making greener stuff more normal–rather than minority eccentric hippy granola stuff on the margins.

    Clorox did this with Green Works; L’Oréal with EverPure hair stuff. And the reason bigger fish have bought smaller fish (L’Oréal with The Boy Shop, Clorox with Burt’s Bees, for ex.) is in part to learn from them (and try to capture that market/demographic share).

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