Greenwashing takes many forms: from the pious concern for the environment expressed in expensive advertising campaigns, to the "continuous improvement" ballyhooed in voluntary codes of conduct; from the creation of benign-sounding corporate front groups, to the participation of transnational corporations (TNCs) in environmental conferences and events. All these efforts share the goal of avoiding national and international sanctions on dirty TNC operations, which are at the root of many global environmental crises.
More recently, companies have been touting their commitment to humanitarian causes like poverty eradication, disaster relief, human rights and sustainable development. Drawing on greenwash techniques, companies from industries like tobacco and mining tell heart warming, personal stories of how their money has helped make a difference. The humanitarian-themed variant of greenwash is called "bluewash" – for the color of the United Nations flag. Classic bluewash is the corporate association with the UN itself as the ultimate symbol of human rights.
The Tenth Edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwash (n) as "Disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image. Derivatives greenwashing (n). Origin from green on the pattern of whitewash."
Corporate Watch defines greenwashing as: 1.) The phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty. 2) Environmental whitewash. 3) Hogwash.
Forty eight of the top business executives in the world attended the UNCED conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. These executives formed the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), and were charged by UNCED with providing the business perspective to the conference. The BCSD, along with the more traditional lobbying group the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), had unparalleled access to the UNCED Secretariat and extraordinary influence in weakening key agreements, including the biodiversity and climate conventions and Agenda 21.
In the weeks after Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, Shell, which faced a public corporate crisis, tried to spin its way out of trouble, spending millions of dollars justifying its continuing operations in Nigeria. In the company's adverts and press releases, the Ogoni were portrayed as violent, as separatists, as sappateurs, while Shell systematically lied to the world over its links with the military regime. How the truth was manipulated in Nigeria is just one small example of corporate public relations industry that spends 35 billion dollars a year protecting business interests world-wide.
Money spent on "environmental programs" sometimes goes to polluting chemical waste incinerators.