Dictionaries Differ on Greenwashing

There are subtle but significant differences in some dictionary definitions of “greenwash.” Although it’s a relatively new word – appearing for the first time within the last six years in major English dictionaries – you’d have to be a language ostrich not to know it has something to do with specious claims about protecting the environment. But what precisely is going on in the minds of people who recognize a greenwash? I selected a small sample of dictionaries with distinctive national reputations to see if I could glean an insight into this question.

Since lexicographers do the painstaking work of examining how people in particular populations actually use a word – notwithstanding the Wikipedia note that the Encarta Webster’s Dictionary 2004 “draws on English as it is spoken in all parts of the English-speaking world” – I thought my dictionary selections below pointed to interesting nuances that may be traceable to national sentiments of three English speaking countries: USA, Britain, and Canada. Let’s start with the Americans:

·MSN Encarta: greenwash, noun: bogus environmentalism; public relations initiatives by a business or organization, e.g. advertising or public consultation, that purport to show concern for the environmental impact of itsactivities.

·The Encarta Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language (2004): greenwash, noun:public relations initiatives by a business or organization, e.g. advertising or public consultation, that purport to show concern for the environmental impact of its activities.

·Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English (2008): greenwash, noun:the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities.

·The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2006): greenwash, noun: The dissemination of misleading information by an organization toconceal its abuse of the environment in order to present a positive publicimage; the information so disseminated.

Observing what all four above definitions have in common, it’s obvious that greenwashing is understood as an institutional activity (organization, business). The first two Encarta definitions are identical except for the MSN version which adds the unequivocal and blunt description, “bogus environmentalism.” Perhaps this “draws on English as it is spoken in all parts of the English-speaking world,” but I suspect it has more to do with MSN’s habit of popularizing its content, however justified that may be in this case.

The evolution of the mass understanding of greenwashing moves from an “initiative” in the first two Encarta entries to  a “practice” in Webster’s 2008. This is a profound turn in the public’s mind. Greenwashing is now seen as something commonplace, normal, to be expected. Even more, it speaks volumes about the offending organization: that it wants not only to be seen as being on the environmental bandwagon, but that it has something to hide by way of “unfriendly” or “unsavory” environmental activities.

Finally, the American Heritage definition is the strongest of them all. It shows the public now understands greenwashing has legal connotations – or rather illegal ones. The cautious, legalistic dance as the two Encartas “purport to show concern” has become a bold and assertive march to the beat of Heritage’s heavy words “dissemination of misleading information” with an intent to “conceal abuse.”Criminality has supplanted civil wrong.

We now turn to Britain where the Oxford English Dictionary is the quintessential authority of the language.

·Oxford English Dictionary (Online 2008): greenwash, noun: disinformation disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., butperceived as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.

greenwash, (verb): to mislead or deflect (the public, public concern, etc.) by stressing the environmental credentials of a person, company, product, etc., esp. when these are unfounded or irrelevant. Also: to disseminate disinformation about (a company, its operations, etc.) so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

As with the American definitions, there is in the noun form an emphasis on the institutional nature of greenwash. The verb, however, which we didn’t have in the American examples, does allow for the stressing of the environmental credentials of a person, so one would suppose that it includes natural persons as well as corporations. The mention of “credentials” as a possible means of misleading the public is also not found in any of our American examples. This is interesting in so far as credentials imply authority. Perhaps Brits have a greater respect for authority, or perhaps they are simply more aware of the possible abuse of authority. (I certainly can’t speculate based on dictionary definitions of a neologism.) What’s more important is that the British definitions are similar to the Americans’ in their reference to false public images based on misleading information, and also possibly that the Brits don’t show the same potential for litigation.In both cultures, however, it should be noted that there was no direct reference to actual environmental damage – the definitions focusing rather on the disinformation and the disinformers themselves.The revelation of this fact presents an ideal opportunity to turn now to Canada.

Here our definition of greenwash is appropriately rendered in a dictionary that retains a somewhat closer historical connection to its English speaking parent than our American examples.

  • Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition (2004): greenwash, (verb t & i): attempt to diminish the perceived extents of environmental damagecaused by (an accident, etc. or those responsible for it). noun: an act or instance of greenwashing (applied a greenwash to their account of the spill).

Aside from the obvious, that the primary form of the word is a verb, an action, from which the noun is derived and not the other way around,the Canadian definition has a single most important feature that is absent in both its British and American counterparts. In common with its linguistic cousins, Canadian greenwashing does involve perception of environmental wrong doing, but it differs in that it explicitly recognizes the environmental damage is real. Note the exact language, “the perceived extents of environmental damage.”Note also that it doesn’t even say there that the manipulation of perception or public opinion was successful, only that there was an “attempt.” Further note the characteristic Canadian politeness in the definition. It was an “accident.” It recognizes that someone is “responsible.” There is no institutional blame; no litigious tone; no shrill outcry. Could you expect more of a country whose flag is a Maple Leaf?

Please return. My next post will discuss some distinctly Canadian ideas about greenwashing.

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Colin Laughlan