Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Beware the Sins of Greenwashing

Image courtesy of TerraChoice

Yes, Greenies, in all our efforts to go green, we must keep in mind that companies see this not as a lifestyle choice, but rather a gimmick in which to sell us more crap stuff that we don't need.

What exactly is greenwashing? According to Wikipedia,
The term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices. This is often portrayed by changing the name or label of a product, to give the feeling of nature, for example putting an image of a forest on a bottle containing harmful chemicals. Environmentalists often use greenwashing to describe the actions of energy companies, which are traditionally the largest polluters.

Too many companies have jumped on the "Going Green" bandwagon and are stating everywhere and anywhere that they are using more 'green' products, using better 'green' business practices (like using recycled materials or donating to the World Wildlife Fund), and are basically making the world a better place. Truth is, a lot of what they say has hidden trade-offs or are too vague to really verify. And some are simply outright lying.

TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company, put out a body of work called The Six Sins of Greenwashing. They are:

The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off: TerraChoice gives the example of a company that makes paper from a sustainably harvested forest, which sounds good in theory, but what are the impacts of the milling and transportation? Another example is a company selling "energy efficient" electronics that contain hazardous materials. It is said that 57% of all environmental claims committed this sin.

The Sin of No Proof: TerraChoice uses personal care products as an example. Say a company claims to be certified organic and doesn't test on animals, but doesn't give any evidence, certification, or proof. As much as 26% of environmental claims committed this sin.

The Sin of Vagueness: A company promotes its garden insecticides as “chemical-free.” But TerraChoice brings up the fact that nothing is free of chemicals. All plants, animals, and humans are made of chemicals. "If the marketing claim doesn’t explain itself (“here’s what we mean by ‘eco’ …”), the claim is vague and meaningless." One of my personal favorites is when something claims to be "all natural" and contains things like formaldehyde, which, while natural, can be quite harmful. Upwards of 200 products and at least 11% of "environmental" claims commited this sin.

The Sin of Irrelevance: Examples of this are are products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. TerraChoice adds, "Ask if the claim is important and relevant to the product. If a light bulb claimed water efficiency benefits you should be suspicious." This account for 4% of environmental claims.

The Sin of Fibbing: This occurs mainly in products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. For example, shampoos that claim to be “certified organic”, but for which research could find no such certification. This is found in 1% of environmental claims.

The Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils: TerraChoice gives the examples of organic tobacco and “green” insecticides and herbicides. Wouldn't it just be better to quit smoking if you're worried about the pollution associated with cigarettes? And how about using less chemicals on your lawn instead of looking for greener alternatives? This accounts for 1% of environmental claims.

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne

Fortunately, there are many resources nowadays that can help us distinguish which companies are actually eco-friendly, and which are simply riding the green wave to make a buck (and hurting the environment in the process).

On the Greenwashing Brigade's website, they discuss current events that include greenwashing, such as the political conventions and the Olympics.

Source Watch gives rules of thumb for greenwashing as well as world-wide case studies.

Futerra Sustainability Communications has a Greenwash Guide you can download. lists America's top ten worst greenwashing offenders.

And just for fun, here's CorpWatch's Greenwash Academy Awards. (Surprise, surprise, oil companies were the major "winners.")

Basically, just remember that all companies are really trying to do is get you to buy their product, and going green is just the newest gimmick to sell it to you. If you really want to go green, consider simply buying less (and not from companies with shady "green" backgrounds). Remember to use less, and use products that have always been safe for the environment, like vinegar and baking soda. Don't buy some "New and Improved" chemical product that has vinegar in it and costs 10 times as much; simply go to the original source.

Oh yeah, and spread the word.

No comments: