Greenwashing: Not Just for Corporations?

Last Updated Dec 17, 2009 7:31 AM EST

The talks in Copenhagen are rolling on, bringing the issue of how serious we all are about tackling climate change to the fore. And on the HBR Conversation Starter blog recently Diane Coutu reminds us that it's not just governments and businesses that are guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to their green commitments. Individuals are guilty of greenwashing too:
I have a colleague who cares passionately about the environment. She worries about global warming, supports policy to reduce carbon emissions, and is militant about keeping the heat down and maintaining the proper tire pressure in her car. Yet her car is an SUV that gets shameful (her words) gas mileage. She lives in a large house -- even by American standards -- and recently purchased a second home in the mountains.
How many of us recognize ourselves in this description -- zealously curbing our carbon footprint in some areas while conveniently ignoring those cuts that would cost us our treasured pleasures (for me it's ridiculously long, ridiculously hot showers and frequent air travel)? Still, Coutu is not harshly critical of us hypocrites. She believes that "the issue of personal greenwashing is not so much one of self-delusion as one of (often unconscious) anxiety." With a problem as overwhelmingly large as climate change, people try to gain a sense of (largely illusory) control through small actions.

Before we come down on ourselves for personal greenwashing, Coutu suggests we consider how we'd handle our anxiety without this coping mechanism. "If you want to do away with denial and self-delusion, what will you replace them with?" she asks, and goes on to suggest that the hope we get from small measures might embolden us to take bigger action.

Personally, I'm inclined to see this issue in the opposite light. Small actions, no matter how noble, are more likely to lull us into self-satisfaction, and take away the sense of urgency needed to tackle larger, structural changes (to the power grid, to our transportation fleet) as a society. What's your take on personal greenwashing -- necessary interim step or dangerous delusion?

(Hippo hypocrisy image by technicolorcavalry, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.