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Greenwashing is a negative description for a certain type of advertising. It is derived from the term whitewashing.

Whitewash originally was a cheap kind of paint (mostly lime and water). It could be applied quickly and would freshen an old structure, at least to the casual observer. From that came the idea of “whitewashing” a person, a reputation or a situation to create a clean appearance and cover up a problem.

If we replace the white in whitewashing with green (meaning “good for the environment”), we end up with the term greenwashing: a technique advertisers use to make something look good or harmless for the environment, while masking a problem.

For instance, a chemical company may brag about cleaning up its environmental damage in North America—but it remains silent about its new, polluting factories in India. A forest products company may show tree planters hard at work restoring hillsides—but it never mentions that in producing its “green” paper, it uses or releases dangerous chemicals. Both companies are greenwashing.