It's Not Easy Being Green: And It's Even Harder to be Green and Ethical

By Laura A. Palmer | Guest Columnist

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact Derek G. Ross at

Every day, we’re subjected to advertising claims assuring us that we’re making environmentally conscious choices in our lives. Whether it’s a grocery store’s philosophy of purchasing from sustainable food sources, or a gas station’s verdant green, yellow, and white visual branding, or even the “all natural” label on our box of crunchy breakfast cereal, we’re on the receiving end of messages assuring us that the products we buy and consume are good for both the environment and us.

Yet, as not only consumers, but as technical communicators, how many of us stop to consider the barrage of written and visual environmental messaging we receive? At the grocery store, do you contemplate the exact word choices on packaging, including the claims and assertions? Do you deconstruct the package’s images to understand more about what they convey?

Even though we, as technical communicators, are critical thinkers, we can be just like everyone else; we can easily lull ourselves into believing that “green” environmental claim messages come from companies who hold ethical practices in the highest regard. We want to believe such businesses are interested in both people and the natural world and thus seek ways to provide consumers with ethical messages.

Yet, in all this talk of the environment and “green” messages, it’s important to remember the color of money is also green. As more businesses come under pressure to align themselves with environmental sustainability and the development of green products, the question of profits and ethical practices comes into play.

Ethical spending (free range eggs, fair trade coffee, etc.) on the part of consumers has skyrocketed, according to Ed Gillespie, author of “Stemming the Tide of ‘Greenwash'”(2008). In only six years, ethical purchases jumped some 81%. Gillespie also noted that the dollars spent to attract ethical consumers made an astounding leap from the single-digit millions to the tens of millions—an investment that has, as Greg Northen has found, significant benefits for influencing both consumers and the financial bottom line.

As technical communicators, we need to ask about corporate social responsibility and, in particular, understand how inaccurate green claims or “greenwashing” can, intentionally or accidently, become part of the messages we create.

Corporate Social Responsibility

“What is our Corporate Social Responsibility?” is an excellent place to start when assessing “green” messages. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emerged in the early 1970s. As a philosophy, it radically altered the profit-only culture of companies and instead re-situated them as having responsibilities that extended past profits and shareholder dividends. Writing in the Tulane Law Review, Miriam Cherry and Judd Sneirson (2011) describe this new corporate role as one that gave equal regard to financial performance, environmental consequences, and social impact. In short, the rise of CSR marked the birth of an engaged and ethical corporate citizen.

Or did it? The degree to which any company embraces CSR can vary, according to Cherry and Sneirson. The model they examined—one with six distinct stages—ranges from a corporate culture with no regard for environmental laws to one which values all forms of life, both current and future. Thus, depending on a company’s ethical climate, it may be both easy and acceptable to create messages that spin poor environmental performance in a positive light, as Magali Delmas and Vanessa Cuerel Burbano discuss in their 2011 article.

Just imagine the fictional company, “Green Eco-Solutions Enviro-Products Inc.” proclaiming its virtuous “green” practices in the media and to its customers while quietly pumping untreated waste into a nearby lake. Not only is this company breaking environmental laws, it’s also guilty of greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is, according to Gillespie, advertising or marketing that misleads the public by stressing the supposed environmental credentials of a person, company, or product when these are unsubstantiated or irrelevant.

The term is by no means new; greenwashing, as an idea, has been around since the early 1990s. Greenwashing has, however, evolved from what Gillespie notes as a simple juxtaposition of images that infer an environmental initiative to what Delmas and Cuerel Burbano (2011) describe as the intentional misleading of consumers about not only environmental performance, but also the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Sadly, greenwashing can, according to Gillespie, do more than deceive consumers. It can bring down ethical companies that are truly trying to contribute to the environment by making people suspicious of all corporate intent and activities.

How Can We Prevent Greenwashing?

While greenwashing can happen when ethical practices and CSR fail to align, Gillespie is quick to point out that not all greenwashing is part of a plan to deceive. Rather, it can also stem from a general lack of knowledge about environmental issues combined with what he calls a “mangling of facts, figures, and visual imagery” (p. 81).

Contributing to the problem are ethical guidelines and codes that don’t include a discussion of greenwashing. As Delmas and Cuerel Burbano note, greenwashing can also occur because employees, managers, and firm leaders have “limited tools and information to evaluate firm greenwashing activities” (p. 75).

The 10 Signs of Greenwash

Technical communicators can play an important role in preventing greenwashing. First, linking a company’s ethical policies and corporate social responsibility philosophy for environmental concerns is one important step. Second, several checklists exist to help us assess when and where greenwashing can happen in the work we review. Gillespie asks us to consider his 10 signs of greenwash when evaluating or writing marketing claims.

  • Fluffy Language: words or terms with no clear meaning, e.g., eco-friendly
  • Green Products vs. Dirty Company: efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  • Suggestive Pictures: images that indicate a (unjustified) green impact, e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes
  • Irrelevant Claims: emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
  • Best in Class: declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are terrible
  • Just Not Credible: “greening” a dangerous product such as eco-friendly cigarettes doesn’t make it safe
  • Gobbledygook: employing jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  • Imaginary Friends: a “label” that looks like a third-party endorsement, except it’s made up
  • No Proof: making a claim that may or may not be backed by evidence
  • Outright Lying: using totally fabricated claims or data
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

TerraChoice, a division of Underwriters Laboratories, also has a list to help writers think more critically about greenwashing. In the publication, The Sins of Greenwashing (2010), TerraChoice outlines their list of communication sins as:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
  • Sin of No Proof: committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.
  • Sin of Vagueness: committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. “All-natural” is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. “All natural” isn’t necessarily “green.”
  • Sin of Irrelevance: committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful, but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. “CFC-free” is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.
  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes might be an example of this category, as might be fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.
  • Sin of Fibbing: the least frequent sin is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.
  • Sin of Worshiping False Labels: the sin of worshiping false labels is committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists.
Where else can a technical communicator look for guidance?

As a technical communicator, there are several ways you can actively bring awareness to the issue of greenwashing and help make important ethical alignments in your company.

First, see how your company’s CSR statement and ethics guidelines align with respect to environmental practices. If you don’t see a solid connection between these documents, you’ve got an excellent opportunity to start a conversation about preventing greenwashing.

Next, consider creating a tool to help everyone evaluate greenwashing for both writing and design. The lists in this article may be perfect or you could combine relevant items to make a customized checklist for your workplace.

Third, take a good look at both print and Web designs, paying extra attention to labels. TerraChoice found the use of false or meaningless labels was on the rise in 2010 with 32% of greener products displaying a fake label. Just because a stock image supplier has eco-labels available for download doesn’t mean they’re authentic.

Finally, every technical communicator should be familiar with the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides for marketing claims. These guides help all writers, not just marketers, to ensure that the language they’re using doesn’t make unfair or deceptive claims. Check out the Green Guides, more formally called Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, on the FTC’s website (

Remember, if you see ethical guidelines or codes that don’t include a discussion of greenwashing, consider amending them to explain why it’s not quite so easy to be green.

Laura A. Palmer is an assistant professor and graduate coordinator in the information design and c ommunication program at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, GA. Her research interests include environmental rhetoric and professional practices of social media communication.

Responses to Ethics Cases

Editorial Note: Our last column on the ethics of résumé design sparked interesting discussion in our community. In the column, Merle, a fictional job hunter, acquires a job using a professionally designed résumé. He is later found to be less detail-oriented than his new employer expected.

Suyog writes: “The fact that the company could not identify his [Merle’s] character given a period as long as four months makes the company as guilty as the candidate. Also, even if it is true that the Internet is still a free resource and that commanding complete privacy is still not possible, there are some distances that we must assume/self-impose. Besides, it is equally true that Merle’s résumé (in the case) was a professionally edited document, and hence to present it as his own work might pose an act of plagiarism. But, assuming that he paid for it (or, that that’s what writers do!) his mental justification that he served the most accurate information will be correct. I believe the way out of this vicious circle is to use one’s own wisdom. As an employer, I will like to take prior approval to access the social profiles of the candidates. And, as a job seeker, I would like to share the fact that I hired professional services for building my professional profile.”

Similarly, Alison, who posted her response in our online comments section, writes, “I don’t think that an employer should assume that a résumé has been designed and written by the job applicant. I expect wise applicants to get help on their résumés. If I am invited as a keynote speaker, I might have a professional do my hair and make-up. Don’t expect me to look that good when I show up at the office the next day. If high-level business writing and design are a priority, the employer should request samples of his own professional work.”

Others of you had even more to say—please see “Responses to Ethics Cases, Continued” in this issue.

These responses suggest an ethical call and response—the writer has an obligation to disclose their design approach, but the employer has an obligation toward ethical due diligence. What do you think?

Speaking of due diligence, do you do your research when it comes to “green” products? Did you buy your last bottle of cleaning product because the label suggests it is environmentally friendly? Do you carefully select foods labeled as “sustainable” or “organic” when you buy groceries? How can you be sure that those products are as ethically produced as they seem?

Perhaps your company produces products or services which require statements regarding their environmental impact—how do you or your company address the potential ethical conflicts between profitability and environmental accountability?

In this month’s column, Dr. Laura Palmer discusses the ethics of “green” language. In doing so, she offers us insight into unethical greenwashing practices, and strategies for ethically addressing our own communication strategies.

Let us know your answers to the questions we’ve posed, your thoughts on the ethics of environmental communication in general, or send us your own ethics cases or column ideas. Please send your responses to Responses will be printed in an upcoming issue of Intercom as space permits.

—Derek G. Ross

The company hired Merle based almost entirely on the look of his résumé, and while a résumé is important, it is not the only thing that should be considered when applying for a job. His employers could have and probably should have asked for a writing sample in addition to his résumé, since writing was such a large part of the position. Looking at his skills in certain programs and perhaps contacting some of his references might also have allowed the employer to get a better understanding of Merle’s abilities and weaknesses. Some companies even have a writing test at the interview, if the position is writing intensive.

Furthermore, while I don’t like the idea of employers looking at my online presence, it is a viable and fair way to judge a potential employee. People should know by now anything posted on the internet is available, and they should be more mindful of what it is they choose to display. While it could be short-sighted to refuse a person an interview based on lack of punctuation in a Facebook post, a person’s online presence could be used as a personality indicator, which often becomes very important in the workplace.

Having someone create your résumé is a deception, but the fact of the matter is you can hire someone to design and create your résumé, and it is the employer’s responsibility to recognize and understand that fact. Résumé writing pays and as long as the market exists, the deception will continue to occur, much like people who write college essays for others. But what people who engage in this deception fail to realize until it is too late is that eventually the deception will fail and cause more harm than the truth. It is not just the company who is hurt by the deception, Merle could find himself fired for incompetence, making it that much harder for him to get his next job.

While I sympathize with Merle’s situation, he is not blameless. He not only had someone else create his résumé, but he also applied for a position he should have known he was not truly qualified for. In this instance he should have done more research on the position, asked more questions about what he would be doing during the interview, and been more frank when presenting his abilities at the interview. Often when people are unsuccessfully looking for work for so long, they become obsessed with getting a job without really focusing on finding a job where they might actually excel. Once Merle was hired and he realized he was in over his head, he should have either resigned before being fired, or taken steps to become better at “catching the details,” if the job was something he really wanted to do.

Even after examining a potential employee’s résumé, writing sample, interview, and online presence, it is still possible to hire the wrong person for the job. Hiring is a gamble, as is accepting a position. However there are steps that can and should be taken to lessen the risk.



Cherry, M. A., and J. F. Sneirson. 2011. Beyond Profit: Rethinking Corporate Social Responsibility and Greenwashing after the BP Oil Disaster. Tulane Law Review 85:983–1039.

Delmas, M. A., and V. Cuerel Burbano. 2011. The Drivers of Greenwashing. California Management Review 54(1): 64–88.

Federal Trade Commission. 2012. Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. Retrieved from

Gillespie, E. 2008. Stemming the Tide of “Greenwash.” Consumer Policy Review 18(3): 79–84.

Northen, G. 2011. Greenwashing the Organic Label: Abusive Green Marketing in an Increasingly Eco-friendly Marketplace. Journal of Food Law and Policy 7: 101–134.

TerraChoice. 2010. The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition. Retrieved from