The Art of Greenwashing

Written by Bryan Lavery



…and the Lexicon for Faux Environmental Responsibility


The term greenwashing has been around long before expressions like “locally-sourced,” “farm fresh,” “artisanal,” “organic,” “small-batch” and “heirloom” conferred unwarranted credibility on menus of some restaurants that are less than forthright about their food purchasing practices. Many restaurant professionals of my acquaintance joke that the rule of thumb is that the number of adjectives in a restaurant’s menu is inversely relative to the quality of food.

There is also the issue of “farmwashing” and the hypocrisy of calling your cuisine locally-sourced or farm-to-table when using out-of-province produce or ingredients. “Farm-to-table cuisine” is a term now so common that it has inspired its own irritating abbreviation, F2T,” states veteran food journalist, Corby Kummer, in a recent Vanity Fair article called, “Is it Time to Table Farm-to-Table?”

One of the most frequent oversights that businesses make, even unintentionally, is greenwashing — making an ambiguous statement about something that is perceived to be “green” when in reality the claim is motivated sheerly by profit rather than in the spirit of improving the environment. The term greenwashing relates to the practice in which hype and propaganda are employed to encourage the false perception that a business or organization’s products and policies are eco-friendly, or that environmental responsibility is a core business ethic, when in fact it is lacking. Greenwashing has become a commonplace ruse in our modern world to sell just about everything.

A lot of greenwashing is actually intentional, a strategy that has businesses cloaking themselves in the environmental movement in hopes of showcasing a superior moral character, while pretending to speak to your principles. This type of marketing is based on how consumers want to be perceived by others or want to feel about their own choices.

Imagine my scepticism after I discovered that an “artisan” cheese which I had praised at one of my favourite farm-to-table restaurants, and then touted, turned out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the very essence of Quebec’s terroir, but a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” farmer featured on the bucolic packaging was nothing more than an invention of some marketing agency.

It seems to me that the logic goes something like this: If consumers value the environment for its beauty and biodiversity, and if a product’s messaging and aesthetic reflect those principles, consumers are quite likely to align themselves with that eco-friendly ethos. Positioning a brand is about showing the clients that your products share their principles and are in sync with the consumer’s identity.

Being green not only has a certain rarified status, it is politically correct and valued by both eco-friendly and non-green consumers alike. Yet green and sustainable must be two of the most overused and confusing words in the lexicon for faux environmental responsibility. Marketers and advertising agencies toss around deliberately ambiguous words like “pure”, “non-toxic”, “chemical-free”, “environmentally-friendly”, “energy efficient” and “natural”, or ascribe hollow eco-certifications to greenwash their products.

Marketing studies have established that prompting emotions like guilt, greed, fear, and admiration from consumers has a motivating effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The term greenwashing was actually created by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay concerning the hotel industry’s habit of placing placards in rooms to promote the reuse of towels, in order to conserve resources and seemingly to “save the environment.” Westervelt discovered that, in most situations, little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was being made. Westervelt then stated that the actual objective of this “green campaign” on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, motivated by increased profitability. Westervelt labelled this and other superficial environmentally conscientious acts with the underlying purpose of profiteering as greenwashing.

The term “going green” refers to the pursuit of knowledge and holistic practices that lead to more environment-friendly and ecologically responsible choices and lifestyles. The expectation is that it helps to protect the earth’s assets and sustain its natural resources for future generations. When you combine those initiatives with energy efficiency measures that safeguard the ecology, you ideally make your business more resource efficient, and decrease costs.

Sustainability is based on the principle that everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which the human race and nature can co-exist.

In the dog-eat-dog world of factory-farming and giant multinationals guilt is frequently utilized by marketers in designing advertising appeals. One of the most powerful motivators in marketing is exploiting consumers’ fears about the health and welfare of the planet and whether it will be healthy enough for people in the future to meet their needs. It seems that some of the most profitable corporate brands in the world have mastered how to successfully transform our fears into their fortunes.


Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.