By now you’ve probably heard the term greenwashing. It happens when companies attempt to paint a “green” face on any old product and try to convince consumers that it is somehow more ecologically or socially sound, or more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, these days words like sustainable and green are thrown around so much that they are often taken for granted, without any real scrutiny behind their actual meaning (for more on regulations covering what is and isn’t green, see Gary Gnirss’ “Regulatory Affairs” column on page 24).
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, a science-based marketing agency with offices in Ottawa and Philadelphia, Pa., is trying to help businesses and consumers decipher this sort of green rhetoric. Two years ago, the company, which helps clients with environmental marketing strategies, communication and research, produced its 2007 Six Sins of Greenwashing report evaluating environmental marketing claims. While the report received much attention from the media and environmental and consumer groups, it also had its detractors. Some challenged, for instance, the fact that the organization’s evaluation criteria didn’t cover truly positive company initiatives that were not third-party audited.
Regardless, in April TerraChoice released its 2009 Seven Sins of Greenwashing, listing the green transgressions committed by corporations across all industries. Research was conducted from November 2008 to January 2009, primarily through scrutiny of products sold in category leading big box retailers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, and claims were evaluated based on best practices, as well as guidelines from a number of groups, including the Competition Bureau of Canada. Of the 2,219 products evaluated, researchers found that more than 98 per cent committed at least one of the sins of greenwashing. What’s also interesting was that the number of products labelled as “green” had jumped almost 79 per cent, while genuine eco-labelling had jumped from 13.7 per cent to 23.4 per cent.
A number of these sins (for the full report, see http://sinsofgreenwashing.org) deal with lack of proof of claims, vagueness, irrelevance or simply flat out lies. Companies were also taken to task for the “sin of lesser of two evils,” making a claim that while technically true masks the fact that the product itself has unhealthy environmental consequences. In Canada the largest percentage of products deemed to feature greenwashing had “hidden trade offs” – they refer to very limited aspects of the products’ “greenness” while ignoring more important environmental issues.