The Six Sins of Greenwashing

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by: Joel Makower

Is green marketing just a series of lies?

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from a new study that examines
hundreds of environmental labeling claims and found pretty much all of
them wanting, suffering from sins of either omission or commission.

Is it any wonder that consumers are overwhelmingly wary of green marketing and view it as “just a sales tactic”?

Or that while market researchers swear that majorities of consumers want to make green choices, most green products garner only small slivers of the market?

This past spring, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which
consults on green marketing and administers its own labeling and
certification program, sent research teams into six category-leading
“big box” stores with orders “to record every product-based
environmental claim they observed.” TerraChoice instructed the teams
that, for each environmental claim, they should “identify the product,
the nature of the claim, any supporting information, and any references
offered for further information.”

The products studied included a wide range of offerings, from air
fresheners to appliances, televisions to toothpaste. In total, the team
identified 1,018 products making 1,753 claims. Of those products, “all
but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk
misleading intended audiences.”

That’s right. Only one — a house-branded paper product sold by one Canadian retailer — came through unscathed.

The result of this exercise can be found in a new report, “The Six Sins of Greenwashing”,
a sobering and slightly depressing look at today’s green marketplace.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a chance to review the report and
discuss it with Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice and the
report’s principal author. (You can hear an interview I did with Case
on GreenBiz Radio.)

I’ll be honest. As skeptical and critical as I’ve been
on green marketing in recent years, I didn’t believe TerraChoice’s
findings at first. When Case first told me what he and his team had
found, I assumed they had set an impossibly high standard for green

In reality, TerraChoice simply wanted some basic facts: “What proof
is there that a product actually meets this claim?” Case asked. “What
we found was that a vast majority couldn’t answer simple questions.”

Case explained to me the evaluation process:

We actually pulled out all of the different
environmental marketing guidelines. We looked at what the Federal Trade
Commission says about environmental marketing claims. We looked at the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations. We looked at
ISO’s recommendations. We looked at what Consumer Union, the publisher
Consumer Reports, said about it.

And we said, Okay, these are going to be the standards to
evaluate environmental claims. So we took these 1,018 products. We
squished them through these different environmental claims and only one
popped out the other side as not having committed what we’re now
calling one of the “six sins of greenwashing.”

The “sins” identified by TerraChoice include:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off — claims that
    suggest a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute
    (the recycled content of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow
    set of attributes without attention to other important, or perhaps more
    important, environmental issues (such as the energy, climate, water, or
    forestry impacts of paper). Such claims aren’t usually false, but paint
    a misleading picture of the product than a more complete environmental
    analysis would support. This was the most frequently committed “sin,”
    made by 57% of all environmental claims examined.

  • Sin of No Proof (26% of all claims
    examined) — any claim that couldn’t be substantiated by easily
    accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party
    certification. TerraChoice determined there to be “no proof” if
    supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase
    or at the product website.

  • Sin of Vagueness (11% of all claims
    examined) — any claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real
    meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer, such as
    “chemical free” or “all natural.”

  • Sin of Irrelevance (4% of all claims
    examined) — claims that may be truthful but are unimportant and
    unhelpful for consumers, such as CFC-free products, since
    ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons have been outlawed since the late

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils (1% of all
    claims examined) — environmental claims that may be true, but that risk
    distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the
    category as a whole, such as organic tobacco or green insecticides.

  • Sin of Fibbing (less than 1% of all
    claims examined) — claims that are simply false, typically by misusing
    or misrepresenting certification by an independent authority, when no
    such certification had been made

I’m not sure all of these “sins” qualify as greenwashing, which I
define as an intentional effort to misrepresent a product, service, or
company as being environmentally responsible or improved. True, some of
the claims TerraChoice examined represent outright fabrications. But
much of this is less sin than sloppiness — marketers’ efforts to place
a green sheen on a product, perhaps rightfully so, but without offering
some basic proof points.

Either way, it’s a pathetically poor performance for marketers.

And it’s all too reminiscent of the early 1990s, when the modern
green consumer movement began, at least in the U.S. Many of the
products introduced at the time — recycled paper towels, green
cleaners, biodegradable trash bags, energy-efficient lights, and more —
were similarly poorly documented or misrepresented by their
manufacturers and marketers. The ensuing reprimands by government
agencies, environmental groups, and enterprising journalists did a
great deal to sour consumers’ appetite for green products, some of
which still lingers today.

None of this bodes well for the growing green marketplace. As major
retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Staples stock their shelves
with a steady stream of environmentally preferable products, and
thousands of both big and small manufacturers introduce environmental
improvements and innovations into their product lines, the need for
accountability will multiply. And without even a modicum of scrutiny,
we’ll see a Wild West of Green, in which marketers can make pretty much
any green claim with impunity.

What will it take to bring honesty, accuracy, accountability, and
transparency to the marketplace? Who will pick up where TerraChoice
left off, scrutinizing products making green claims? Who will hold
companies accountable?

The obvious answer, of course, would be for a trusted environmental
label to emerge — a Green Housekeeping Seal of Approval, or some such.
But there already are a myriad of eco-labels — Consumer Reports lists 147 of them — and none (including TerraChoice’s own labels) has made significant inroads. Except for the government-controlled organic certification and the Energy Star label, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of green-labeled products in a typical store.

Who will step up? In the 1990s, in the wake of the greenwashing
claims of the day, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission chimed in, issuing
environmental marketing guidelines
that, while weak, still make basic sense today. The FTC also took on a
small number of product purveyors, essentially slapping their corporate
wrists for their marketing misdeeds. A task force of state attorneys
general, headed by Minnesota’s then AG, Hubert H. Humphrey III, rode
into town, held hearings, and issued two reports, disappearing soon

One of those reports, issued in December 1990 (downloadable here – PDF), recommended that:

  • Environmental claims should be as specific as possible; not general, vague, incomplete or overly broad.

  • Environmental claims relating to the
    disposability or potential for recovery of a particular product (e.g.,
    “compostable” or “recyclable”) should be made in a manner that clearly
    discloses the general availability of the advertised option where the
    product is sold.
  • Environmental claims should be substantive.

  • Environmental claims should, of course, be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
  • That seems like Ethical Marketing 101. Why, all these years later, isn’t it being followed — or enforced?

    This time, the stakes are far bigger than in 1990, with bigger
    companies and retailers entering the green marketplace, bigger
    environmental challenges confronting us, and bigger portions of the
    world’s citizenry ramping up consumption. The need for products that
    deliver substantive, if not radical, reductions in their environmental
    impacts couldn’t be greater.

    So, TerraChoice should be lauded for its findings, however painful
    they may be to read. If the misrepresentation in the green marketplace
    is even half as bad as its report suggests, marketers need far more
    than wrist-slapping.

    Says Case:

    I think the real danger is if people are successful
    with their greenwashing efforts, then the truly green, the truly
    innovative companies — the ones that have really figured out how to
    reduce their carbon footprint, how to produce a nontoxic product, how
    to make products out of renewable materials that can be reused — the
    truly innovative products are going to lose out.

    As will we all.

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