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Greenwashing: Green Buyer Beware

Posted Jul 03 2008 1:13pm

ByWeBuyItGreen: promoting green living and fair trade

By now, many of you may be familiar with a study entitledThe Six Sins of Greenwashing,conducted by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing on green advertising.  The study found that the vast majority of green marketing by big box stores was either misleading or false, that the problem of “greenwashing” is widespread.  Companies often misrepresent the environmental benefits of their products in order to reap economic rewards from the growing public sense of responsibility for creating a sustainable future, threatening to spread cynicism and deflate the growing interest in “going green.”

Over the past month, I have posted questions on several green forums as well as the Co-op America Business Network, asking people and merchants to share examples of greenwashing.  The following are a sample of responses that nicely illustrate the types of greenwashing identified in the TerraChoice study. 

The first type of greenwashing, the most common found in the TerraChoice study, isThe Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off, which is “suggesting a product is ‘green’ based on a single environmental attribute . . . or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes . . . without attention to other important . . . environmental issues.”  Zach, the administrator on theGreener People forum, gets credit for the example of corn ethanol.  Although it is true that corn absorbs carbon as it grows, which offsets the CO2 that is released when it is burned as ethanol, a recent study inSciencemagazine cited by theWorld Resources Institutehas shown that “over a 30 year span, ethanol from corn nearly doubles the greenhouse gas emissions of the equivalent amount of gasoline.”  The reason is that manufacturing ethanol is an energy-intensive process, and the use of corn for ethanol leads to an increase in the price of corn and demand for food crops, which in turn leads people around the world to clear new land for growing crops.  Clearing new cropland, manufacturing, and transporting corn ethanol creates far more greenhouse gas emissions than are saved by its beneficial quality of absorbing carbon as it grows.

The second type of greenwashing, theSin of No Proof, simply refers to an environmental claim which offers no supporting evidence.  Our example of this comes from a contributor to theAbout My Planet forum.  The fireworks company he was working for decided to put on a “Green Fireworks Exhibit” for PR purposes.  They apparently offered no evidence that there was anything particularly green about this display other than the color of the fireworks themselves.  Not only that, green-colored fireworks use the chemical agent Barium Carbonate [BaCO3], which, according to our contributor, “is probably the most harmful chemical used in the firework industry.”  Isn’t there also something more than a little ironic about using energy and materials so that you can just blow them up in order to promote yourself as “green”?

Our third greenwashing sin, theSin of Vagueness, involves using terms that have “green” connotations without being sufficiently specific to determine whether or how they are beneficial to our health or the environment.  Words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “recycled” are only meaningful to the extent that the claims they imply are specifically explained.  A number of people and companies cited the example of the terms “natural” and “organic,” often in reference to health and beauty products.  TheOrganic Consumer’s Associationrecently released a list of more than two dozen “natural” and “organic” soaps and other personal care products that contain the carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane.  The state of California has initiated alawsuit against Avalon Natural Products, Beaumont Products, Nutribiotic, and Whole foods Market California for failing to warn consumers about exposure to known carcinogenic chemicals.

TheSin of Irrelevanceprize goes to Tesco, the United Kingdom’s largest food retailer.  One of our contributors fromIt’s Not Easy Being Greenpointed out that Tesco recently published a “Green Issue” of their regular magazine in which they advocated preparing foods from scratch and taking holidays in the UK rather than traveling abroad to curtail fuel emissions.  Such appeals distract consumers from the issue of what Tesco is doing to make their own processes and products greener, and are irrelevant to whether the green consumer should choose their products.  Moreover, in the same magazine, their own advertisers were promoting themselves through travel prizes that included trips as far away as California.

A company commits theSin of Lesser of Two Evilswhen it makes claims that may be true within a restricted category, but that distract the consumer from the detrimental environmental impact of the category as a whole.  The hands-down winner in this case, which was mentioned by many people, was bottled water.  For example, theNew York Times magazinerecently reported that Fiji bottled water has created a new image for itself by reducing its carbon emissions, establishing a reforestation program, and improving its packaging.  Never mind that it takes a product you can get from your tap, packages it in plastic, and ships it half way around the world to you. As one participant on theLive Green forumput it, Fiji claiming to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% is a little like Satan claiming to reduce the temperature in hell by 25%.  Another clever participant onIt’s Not Easy Being Greenput it this way:  If you think that drinking Evian can be good for the environment, you should try spelling it backwards.

The final type of greenwashing,The Sin of Fibbing, is comparatively rare.  TerraChoice only found about 1% of environmental claims in its study committing this sin.  One participant on theTreehugger forumnoted a recent proliferation of claims about ways that you can increase the gas mileage on your car.  (Recently had one try to post an ad on my own forum—no such luck.)  You will find ads claiming that you can greatly improve your gas mileage by attaching devices to your car that convert water to a source of power for your engine or that use magnetic devices to accomplish similar results.  Fortunately, the Sin of Fibbing does tend to rouse the attention of the FTC.  For example, marketers of FuelMax Products recently settled aclaim with the FTCand paid for consumer refunds after an investigation into deceptive claims about improving fuel efficiency.  

So . . . greenwashing is alive and well.  But there is a positive note.  I received many of the best resources for this story from green merchants who participate in theCo-op America Network and Green Pages Directory, indicating that some of the consumer’s strongest and most informed allies in the battle against greenwashing are legitimate green companies.  After all, they may have the most to gain from a consumer who is both motivated to go green and able to discriminate between businesses that actually benefit the environment from those that are simply parading as green.  Next up on the WeBuyItGreen blog—What resources are available for helping you to avoid being the victim of greenwash?


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