Words like “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” are everywhere — labels, ads, even oil companies’ environmental plans. Sometimes, those terms might refer to real action taken to protect the environment. But often, they’re eco-tinged marketing.
There’s a word for that: Greenwashing. Apparently coined by a researcher in a 1986 essay about hotels’ ecological practices, it became ubiquitous slang in an age of looming environmental disaster and corporations eager to appear concerned. Now Merriam-Webster has declared it an official part of the English language by adding it to the dictionary for the first time.
“When many people use a word in the same way, over a long enough period of time, that word becomes eligible for inclusion,” the publisher said in a statement.
greenwashing: the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit communications organization that is calling on ad agencies to stop working with polluting companies, said the new definition comes as greenwashing reaches new levels of ubiquity.
“There’s been just an absolute deluge of greenwashing over the last few years as corporations, and fossil fuel companies in particular, have had to grapple with climate change becoming a top public priority,” said Henn, who is also a co-founder of the national environmental group 350.org. “Where they once tried to deny the problem existed, now they’re trying to pretend they’re part of the solution.”
The evidence that energy companies are greenwashing is abundant. A Thursday report from the nonprofit InfluenceMap, for instance, analyzed thousands of public communications materials from five major oil firms and found that 60 percent of them contained at least one “green” claim, such as touting efforts to bring more renewable energy online or otherwise lower emissions, but those same companies are forecast to spend just a small percentage of their total capital expenditures — 12 percent on average — on renewables or low-carbon technologies this year.
“These companies talk about cutting emissions and transitioning the energy mix, but at the same time continue to invest heavily in new fossil fuels,” InfluenceMap program manager Faye Holder said in an emailed statement.
As greenwashing becomes more prevalent, so are efforts to fight it. Last month, a marketing student brought a lawsuit against fast-fashion giant H&M in New York federal court, accusing it of it greenwashing. Campaigns are calling out alleged greenwashing in agriculture and auto-manufacturing. The federal Security Exchange Commission is working on a proposal to combat the practice. And across the nation, seven state attorneys general — including Massachusetts’ attorney general Maura Healey — and over one dozen local governments have sued oil giants for allegedly hiding the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
Henn said Merriam-Webster codifying the definition of greenwashing was an important step, too.
“Dictionary definitions matter because they solidify the meaning of a word and make it easier to recognize and understand,” he said. “Greenwashing isn’t just a vague concept now, it’s a verifiable fact of life that we need to see, comprehend, and call out wherever possible.”