From Whitewash to Greenwash

Josef Essberger
GREENWASHING is a fairly recent idea – deliberately making a company’s products and activities look “greener” than they really are. Classic public relations BS!

WHITEWASH (a long-standing term for a special paint used for painting walls white) can quickly and easily make dirty walls look clean, bright and new. Another meaning for whitewash is a deliberate attempt to hide unpleasant or incriminating facts about somebody (or some organization) to protect their reputation.

GREENWASH is a much newer term originating in the 1980s. The word greenwash is modelled on whitewash. It refers to disinformation published by an organisation designed to create an environmentally responsible public image – in other words a “green” image.

Pavel Constantin
  • whitewash (compound noun: white+wash): 1. a liquid made from lime and water used for painting walls white – The back wall was looking rather dirty so they gave it a quick coat of whitewash to smarten it up. 2. a deliberate effort to conceal something bad about a person or organization (to improve their reputation) – The judge rejected the report as a total whitewash and fined the company for selling dangerous products.
  • whitewash (verb): 1. to paint something (a wall, room, building) with whitewash – We’ve whitewashed the whole of the house. 2. to deliberately try to hide nasty or incriminating facts about a person or organization – The government tried to whitewash the prime minister’s corruption but nobody believed them.
  • greenwash (noun, modelled on whitewash): disinformation from a company to make people think it is doing more to help the environment than it really is – This company has spent billions of dollars on corporate greenwash.
  • greenwash (verb): to try to make people believe that an organization really cares about the environment even if in reality it actually harms the environment – They try to greenwash their products by sticking words like “eco” and “sustainable” on the packaging but they still ship them by air all over the world.
  • greenwashing (noun): behaviour and activity to make something look “greener” than it really is – The spin about electric vehicles is a classic example of greenwashing since EVs still have to get power from somewhere and disposal of their very large batteries can be an environmental hazard – caveat emptor!


Manufacturers often greenwash their products with “environmentally-friendly” buzzwords and cute animals. Be careful! They might be true. Often they aren’t!

eco | eco-friendly | bio | biodegradable | green | natural | pure | sustainable | non-toxic | recyclable | ethical | cruelty-free | plastic-free | local | Save the Earth!
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Can you give any examples of greenwashing in the comments below?

Further reading

By Josef Essberger for EnglishClub April 2021
Josef started teaching English as a foreign language in 1991 and founded EnglishClub for learners and teachers in 1997.

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