Tarred with the same brush, should we resist blackwashing?

Twisting facts.  Massaging data. Conjuring confusion, or pushing good, old-fashioned lies.

Such accusations are regularly levelled at irresponsible businesses and industries, and the damning finger is often pointed by green groups. Those committed to protecting our planet are keen to expose organisations that try to hoodwink the public. They waste no time in denouncing  institutions that misrepresent their ecological credentials. Corporate ‘greenwashing’ has become a familiar practice in recent years as environmental groups vociferously take to task companies applying a patina of credibility to their environmentally dubious operations.

However, a new report claims the accusers need to get their own house in order, and that many are undermining a position of public trust by using questionable tactics of their own.

Wash and Spin Cycle: Threats to Tropical Biodiversity identifies a trend among some green organisations to manipulate data in the same way that greenwashers do, painting the bleakest picture possible to grab the public’s attention. The paper warns that presenting doom-laden, ‘black-washed’ scenarios actually undermines environmental pressure groups’ credibility.

In particular, Wash and Spin compares the claims of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, who assert their operations help safeguard biodiversity, with those of those monitoring their operations. In particular, it picks out  the claim by Rainforest Action Network that palm oil production could result in the extinction of orang-utans by 2011. The existence of 50,000 individuals makes such a speedy demise unlikely.

“Unrealistic headlines could undermine public confidence invested in environmental groups, which would then be counterproductive to conservation goals,” the paper warns, adding: “The same degree of accountability and transparency demanded from the oil palm industry should also be expected from environmental groups, who are [its] self-declared monitors.”

Let he who is without sin…

It’s difficult to argue with such a sentiment.   But it is important to remember that the playing field is not level, and the nature of the ends sought by pressure groups are markedly different from those of the companies and organisations they challenge.

Environmental groups need to break up the status quo. While corporations use greenwashing as a means to barrel along their ecologically damaging route, all the while reassuring the public that everything is fine, those calling them to task must find a way of applying the brakes – rarely a popular undertaking. They need to convince the public of the dangers of continuing to damage the earth – a public for whom the ‘everything is fine’ mantra has an understandable appeal, and who as a group have a strong tendency toward apathy.  The effectiveness of crying wolf is undeniable, and all the more attractive when that wolf really is circling, if not yet upon us. Wash and spin asserts that green groups would do well to verify their facts carefully before making unrealistic claims. But of course many groups cherry-pick their facts and present worst-case scenarios; only by doing so can they grab the attentions of the public and a sensationalist media.

A second distinction also suggests itself: something akin to the precautionary principle deserves a mention here too. Any ‘blackwashed’ report presents the potential harm that could ensue from allowing environmentally damaging industrial operations to continue, and is intended to force the instigators to address concerns rather than dismiss them as unproven. Of course, each time such claims are actually proven baseless, the public’s faith in self-appointed eco-champions diminishes. But without strident claims to force a review, the case for continuing with business as normal goes unchallenged, and the risk of irreversible damage increases.

Faced with an apathetic or even actively hostile audience, straining to be heard above the bellowing of multinationals and urgent clarion calls from champions of other causes, what alternative is there for green groups but to shout the scariest message at their disposal?

Read the Ecologist’s report on this story.

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