The term “greenwashing” finds it roots in the political expression “whitewashing,” which, according to the Greenwashing Index, is defined as a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts. Jumping off from this point, greenwashing—simply defined as making misleading marketing claims about the environmental benefits of a product—is increasingly becoming a concern for consumers.
As more companies try to get a piece of the green-product pie, words such as “nontoxic” and “all-natural” are popping up on all sorts of goods, even though there can be no inherent meaning behind such labels. According to TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, the three most common product categories subject to greenwashing are:
- Childrens toys and baby products
- Cleaning products
Considering these are some of those most common products found in households across the U.S., TerraChoice suggests the need to highly scrutinize the green claims found in these and other product areas.
The Greenwashing Index is a joint project between EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon. According to its Web site, the Greenwashing Index is designed to:
- Help consumers become more savvy about evaluating advertisers' environmental claims
- Hold businesses accountable to their environmental marketing claims
- Stimulate the market and demand for sustainable business practices that truly reduce their impact on the environment
On its Web site, visitors can post, rate and review ads and claims made by various products and companies concerning their environmental qualities. Based on responses to five statements in a survey by Greenwashing Index Web site users, the marketing claims in the advertisement are scored on the index, judging the authenticity of the claim. A "one" is a truly authentic green claim, while a "five" merits a “bogus” rating.
Why Be Concerned?
Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice, worries that if exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of a product are not better monitored or regulated, it "could be enough to capsize the whole green movement,” according to TIME magazine.
Big retailers are concerned as well. According to Jay Golden, co-director of the Sustainability Consortium, an organization partnering with Walmart to develop the Sustainable Product Index, combating greenwashing was one of the reasons Walmart decided to embark on a mission to create a reliable label that would give consumers information about a product’s sustainability.
In April 2009, TerraChoice produced the Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets Summary Report: North America. According to this report, some of the risks associated with greenwashing include:
- Increased doubt and cynicism from consumers, contributing to a possible reduction in purchases of even legitimately eco- and green-labeled products
- A lessened market share of products offering real environmental benefits because of competitive pressure from illegitimate products
- The sustainability movement could lose its market momentum if consumers do not know which brands or labels to trust
To give an example of greenwashing's impact, the amount of products in stores making environmental claims from 2007 to 2009 increased an average of 79 percent in the number of “green” products available, according to the report.
The report explains this is welcome news because it means consumers are demanding more green products. But it cautions that more work on the side of consumers and companies must be done to prevent believing and creating false and misleading claims about products’ environmental benefits.
The Seven Deadly Sins
False green claims tend to fall under seven general categories, according to Sinsofgreenwashing.org. These “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” include:
- The hidden trade-off
- Having no proof
- Purposeful vagueness
- False labels
- Lesser of two evils
- Simply false claims
For example, the “sin of the hidden trade-off” might emerge when a paper product claims to be the preferable green choice because it was harvested from a sustainably managed forest. Yet little is known about the processes that went into making that paper. Was it chlorinated or bleached? How much energy went into making the paper? Similarly, when claims exist about the percentage of post-consumer recycled content in a product without providing evidence, "the sin of no proof" rears its head.
According to the TerraChoice April 2009 report, the Seven Sins of Greenwashing are 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 towards sustainable innovation.”
Regulating an Emerging Sector
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) deals with the validity of product advertising claims at the national level. However, the FTC has a long way to go in terms of truly enacting green marketing standards, according to an op-ed by Valerie Davis, CEO of EnviroMedia Social Marketing and President of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting.
In her article, Davis cites a Congressional testimony in which James Kohm, associate director of the Enforcement Division in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says that the FTC does not set environmental standards or policy, but rather protects consumers from unfair or deceptive practices.
Kohm also claims that without adequate feedback from consumers about perception and understanding of green claims—something it tried to obtain in 2007 but did not receive enough response—the FTC could inadvertently hurt legitimate green product companies.
In the meantime, studies by the FTC are underway to revamp guides for the use of environmental marketing claims, called Green Guides. These Green Guides were last updated in 1992.
What To Do About It
For immediate action, you can go to the aforementioned Greenwashing Index if you suspect a false and misleading green product claim. The most important tool you can use is education about various green claims and what they could (or may not) mean. The more you know, the more you'll be spending your dollars on products that best suit your eco-preferences.