What is GREENWASHING? How to avoid it as a consumer and how to avoid it as a legitimate business.
Greenwashing is a term that dates way back to 1986, when a New York journalist complained about the cost saving tactic of hotels to get their clients to use the same towel for more than one day by a campaign touting saving the environment. More recently a similar term has cropped up: "Linguistic detoxification" when the name of something is changed to hide its toxity without changing anything in the bottle.
Even before 1986 we had some other terms for these marketing efforts: Smoke & Mirrors, Bullshit and Fraud.
A combination of the rise of environmental activists and the communications power of the web has engendered a lot of identifying "false green" marketing -- so much that even the environmentalists side is sometimes guilty of using a broad "greenwashing paint brush" to apply the greenwash lable with as little research as some companies use to apply the green lable. So both consumers and legitimate companies are often searching for where is the line of truth, or at least honesty, in the desire to be ecologically responsible.
A number of marketing companies have established themselves as credible organizations working in two directions at the same time: help consumers evaluate Green claims; and help honest companies to develop legitimate green claims for their marketing. In Canada, TerraChoice is well enough established that the Canadian Government has asked them to handle the EcoLogo program. TerraChoice has since been aquired by UL. In the UK a lot of very good information is being published by FuTerra.
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing
TerraChoice had a contract to evulate greenwashing in big box stores across the US and Canada. They found 2,219 products making 4,996 green claims. From this they developed The Seven Sins of Greenwashing, "a challenge and call-to-action to discourage greenwashing by putting practical tools in the hands of consumers and companies, while still encouraging and rewarding genuine efforts twoards sustainable innovation." Here is the quick summary -- the whole pdf document which includes guidelines for honest green marketing can be downloaded from the TerraChoice site with the link found after the list.
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: e.g. "Energy-efficient" electronics that contain hazardous materials. 57% of all environmental claims committed this Sin.
- Sin of No Proof: e.g. Shampoos claiming to be "certified organic", but with no verifiable certification. 26% of environmental claims committed this Sin.
- Sin of Vagueness: e.g. Products claming to be 100% natural when many naturally-occurring substances are hazardous. 11% of environmental claims committed this Sin.
- Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. This Sin was seen in 4% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Fibbing: e.g. Products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, EnergyStar or GreenSeal. Found in less than 1% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or "environmentally friendly" pesticides. This occured in 1% of environmental claims.
- Sin of Worshiping False Labels: e.g. creating fake labels or false suggestions of third-party endorsement.
The Greenwash Guide
FuTerra has a slightly lighter and definately British approach, but has produced two lists that I like.
- Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning, e.g. 'eco-friendly'
- Green products vs dirty company: Such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory which pollutes rivers
- Suggestive Pictures: Green images that indicate a (un-justified) green impact, e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes
- Irrelevant claims: Emphasising one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
- Best in class?: Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
- Just not credible: 'Eco friendly' cigarettes anyone? 'Greening' a dangerous product doesn't make it safe
- Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Imaginary friends: A 'label' that looks like third party endorsement ...except it's made up
- No proof: It could be right, but where's the evidence?
- Out-right lying: Totally fabricated claims or data
and the Six easy steps for Companies
- Know thyself: are you really green?
- Been green by design, not luck: search for a grain of green is weak: design to be green
- Check and check again: compare your planned claims to your moldy green skeletons in the closet
- Choose your firends wisely: choose third party labels or endorsements that are legitimate
- Remember words can hurt you: some terms have legal definations or copyright -- like "organic" & "ecologo"
- Greenwash health check: is everyone in the company saying the same thing?
Most of the time we have to go by Buyer Beware, although more and more legislation is controlling some aspects of false advertising and including false Greenwashing. In Canada the Competition Bureau along with the Canadian Standards Association are discouraging companies from making "vague claims" towards their products' environmental impact. Any claims must be backed up by "readily available data". Unfortunately there are not a lot of teeth in those efforts. Legitimate third party certification is becoming one of our best resources, things like the copyrighted EcoLogo. and EnergyStar labels.
Probably the most powerful force we have for now is to have consumers challange store managers on questionable claims, causing them to challange the buyers, causing them to challenge the manufacturers. When you work back up the profit chain, the response is often quicker.