Nowadays consumers and companies alike love green, although there is an important amount of suspicion between both sides. This is the result of a large number of companies that actually portray to be green by using “greenwashing” method.
Photo credit: Giacomo Cardelli
Greenwashing is a term that was first added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999. It refers to the companies practice of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of their services, policies or products. Many companies spend more time and money on advertising that they are being green, than on actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.
The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice is famous for its list of seven sins that companies make and that incriminate them as greenwashers. The list can be a helping hand for consumers to identify themselves a greenwashing act. Here they are:
1. Sin of the hidden trade-off. Companies present a product to be eco-friendly based on few sets of attributes while they omit to speak about other important environmental issues in the product making. Chemicals, gas emissions, water and air pollution are just few of the omitted issues.
2. Sin of no proof. Companies make environmental claims that simply cannot be proved by certifications or easily accessible supporting information.
3. Sin of vagueness. Many people know how many products are advertised as natural, but few realize that this doesn’t mean they are green products. Mercury, Arsenic, uranium, formaldehyde are all naturally occurring; but they are also poisonous.
4. Sin of irrelevance. Although true, some environmental claims are completely unimportant or unhelpful for consumers.
5. Sin of lesser of two evils. The product can be slightly less harmful than it was before.
6. Sin of fibbing. Believe it or not, some companies claim that their products have some certifications or registrations but have no evidence of that.
7. Sin of worshiping false labels. Some products are promoted through images and words that give the impression of third-party endorsement. The endorsement does not exist.
The web presents some useful information that help consumers identify greenwashing. For example there is the Greenwashing Index, a project developed in partnership with the University of Oregon. Consumers can post and comment on ads making environmental claims.
Then again there is GoodGuide, aproject founded by Dara O’rourke, who is also an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The GoodGuide’s team is made of chemists, toxicologists, sociologists, nutritionists who rate products and companies by their environmental performance.
Some consumers have the possibility to obstruct greenwashing by making complaints to regulatory agencies that exist in few countries like Australia, Canada, Norway, USA, United Kingdom. However, critics of greenwashing consider some of the agencies’ regulations as inefficient.
For example, in the USA, the Federal Trade Commission first released the “Green Guidelines” in 1998. The most recently update was completed last year. Some critics say that the new regulations can lead to opposite effect. Companies might be discouraged to make incremental improvements because, according to the new guidance, it is forbidden to make even specific environmental claims if “the impact is negligible”.
Are you aware about the greenwashing practice? How do you identify it?