Ottawa

'Greenwashing' can hinder clean-tech efforts

The clean-technology industry's reputation is at risk of being damaged by "greenwashing," when companies falsely market themselves as environmentally beneficial.

BP, Jaffer cases highlight suspicions about green marketing

The clean-technology industry's reputation is at risk of being damaged by "greenwashing," when companies falsely market themselves as environmentally beneficial.

BP's television commercials in recent years have revolved around the themes of biofuels, alternative energy and reducing carbon footprints. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

"If people get the impression that anybody that's a clean-technology company is doing it for just purely marketing reasons, there's a risk that everyone will get tainted by that brush," said Niraj Bharghava, CEO of Energate.

The Ottawa-based company builds a device and software to help people and utilities save electricity.

Firms like his fight to be heard amid the green-themed advertising of corporate giants like BP.

The London-based petroleum company's massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens ocean life and sensitive wetlands. But BP's television commercials in recent years have revolved around the themes of biofuels, alternative energy and carbon footprints, closing with a green, flower-like logo and the slogan "Beyond petroleum."

Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong: How our economy is undermining the environmental revolution, said businesses feel they need to appear environmentally responsible to gain access to markets.

"Large companies like Wal-Mart and BP, they know at this point that if they want to protect their image and therefore their profitability they have to present some kind of green image, and so they're busy cultivating that," she said from New York City.

Meanwhile, the recent oil disaster highlights the fact that BP's core business hasn't changed, she added. "It's shocking and it's terrible, but that's really the business that BP is in."

False hope

Rogers said deceptively wrapping a conventional business in a cloak of environmental responsibility is damaging because it gives people false hope and false solutions.

Former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer was accused in April of trying to use his ties with former government colleagues to gain access to the green fund for alternative energy projects without registering as a lobbyist.

But it's not fair to look at the so-called greenwashers and those who are jumping on the green bandwagon as malevolent, she said, because they're just obeying the logic of the market.

Rick Whittaker, vice-president of investments and chief technology officer for Sustainable Technology Development Canada, agrees that greenwashing is "absolutely" happening because of market opportunities in the clean-tech field.

'It's buyer beware at this point in time.'— Rick Whittaker, Sustainable Technology Development Canada

"Clean tech is a great buzzword right now. It holds a lot of promise," said Whittaker. "So it's buyer beware at this point in time."

His arm's-length foundation is distributing $1.05 billion in federal funds targeted at green technology and projects. But the types of firms taking advantage of those kinds of opportunities have been under scrutiny.

Former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer was accused in April of using his ties with former government colleagues in an attempt to gain access to the green fund for alternative energy projects pitched by his firm, Green Power Generation Corp., without registering as a lobbyist.

Despite its name, the firm does not generate power. It is a consulting firm that Jaffer described as "helping to commercialize innovative technology solutions that are a good for the environment."

'People are much wiser'

Nicholas Parker, founder of the Cleantech Group, which specializes in market intelligence for the industry, said the Jaffer case is a distraction.

"If we're worried about a little parochial scandal in Ottawa around a former, no-name politician, that's not the point," he said. 

Instead, he wants business and political leaders to pay attention to real clean technology and be willing to invest in what he estimates is a "$3.5-trillion market opportunity" worldwide over the next decade.

Parker says fewer and fewer companies can get away with greenwashing these days.

"The world is a much more transparent place and people are much wiser than they were before," he said.

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