Whenever you get a bunch of greenies into a room, whether it’s those who make stuff, build stuff or promote stuff that it truly low impact or even planet friendly, the topic of greenwashing comes up.
According to Terra Choice’s April 2009 Greenwashing Report, Greenwashing is defined as: (gren’wosh’,-wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding
the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
And you are being greenwashed on a daily basis by companies that are both intentionally deceiving you, and also those who are making false claims without knowing it. If any multinational corporation defines itself as sustainable, you can pretty much bet money that you’re being greenwashed. Even Patagonia does not call itself sustainable. It’s a goal, but they know only too well how far they are from it.
Anyway, in 2007, Terra Choice published the Six Sins of Greenwashing: A Primer. This year they added one more. Here they are:
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, committed by suggesting a product is ‘green’ based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, including energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and air pollution, may be equally or more significant.
2. Sin of No Proof, committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.
3. Sin of Vagueness, committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.
4. Sin of Irrelevance, committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.
5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, committed by claims that may be true within the product category,
but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category
as a whole. Organic cigarettes are an example of this category, as are fuel-efficient
6. Sin of Fibbing, the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims
that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to
be Energy Star certified or registered.
7.Sin of Worshiping False Labels. A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.
In the United States and Canada, a total of 2,2192 products making 4,996 green claims were recorded. 23% of them committed the last sin, and 98% of products surveyed committed at least one sin.
What’s a consumer (you) to do?
Fortunately, legit eco-labeling is on the rise. It is nearly twice as common as it was last year. But kids (toys and baby products), cosmetics and cleaning products are three categories in which green claims – and greenwashing – are most common. These products, the most common in most households, you should look at with the most critical eye. Here’s how:
1. Keep supporting greener products. As consumers, we have enormous power to shape the marketplace. The worst result of greenwashing would be to give up.
2. Look for, and choose, products with reliable eco-labels (there is a list available as part of this report)
3. In the absence of a reliable eco-label, remember the Seven Sins of Greenwashing and choose the product that offers transparency, information and education.
4. For more information and green-shopping tools, consult the resources in the appendicies of the Seven Sins Report, or visit www.sinsofgreenwashing.org and www.ecologo.org
As the study reminds, there is no such thing as a perfectly ‘green’ product: environmentally preferable products are ‘greener’ not ‘green’, and marketing them as such is entirely fair. But really when it comes down to it, transparency by the product providers is the only way that consumers can vote for the practices we believe in with our purchases.