How to spot the six sins of greenwashing

Photo: istockphoto.com/Elena Kalistratova/ Paul Cowan

Though it has a clean and pleasant ring to it, "greenwashing" is anything but! The Oxford Dictionary added its definition in 1999: Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Growing problem
As long as there have been consumers, there have been salespeople out to befuddle the public about the true nature of their wares. Even the ancient Greeks warned their citizens about "caveat emptor".

Greenwashing" is the newest problem in the marketplace. This shameful practice of whitewashing ugly truths by placing green labels or natural-looking images on products that are not intrinsically environmentally friendly is becoming widespread as consumers become more enviro-conscious.

What's the big deal
The most insidious thing about greenwashing is that it detracts from those who are making difference by feeding growing consumer cynicism. Eventually all "green" companies are placed under the same umbrella and our confidence in green is undermined. But false green labelling may get us to unwittingly participate in activities or use products that actually harm the environment. (Not to mention the sting of being taken in by a false claim.)

So what's an eco-conscious consumer to do?

Everything labeled "green" is not necessarily gold!
The best modern day adage in the case of greenwashing is: "If in doubt; check it out!" Unfortunately, we have all been far too eager to snap up -- and in many cases pay premium prices for -- anything with a green label or stamp on it. While we may not have time to research every "eco-label" there are already many organizations doing just that.

Knowledge is power
Greenpeace offers a checklist called "CARE" to help determine if a company is attempting to greenwash you based on four key considerations.

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has also created the Six Sins of Greenwashing, after testing over 1,018 products claiming to be green and finding "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."

The six sins of greenwashing:

  • 1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: claims that suggest a product is "green" based on a single environmental attribute. While not exactly false it paints a much "greener"picture of the product. (57% of examined products)
  • 2. Sin of No Proof: any claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. (26% of examined products)
  • 3. Sin of Vagueness: every 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 pesticide. (11% of examined products)
  • 4. Sin of Irrelevance: claims that may be truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful for consumers and also distracting. Worst offenders: claiming to be CFC-free, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons have been outlawed since the late 1980s. (4% of examined products)
  • 5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: environmental claims that may be true, but risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole such as organic tobacco or green insecticides. (1% of examined products)
  • 6. Sin of Fibbing: claims that are simply false, typically by misusing or misrepresenting certification by an independent authority, when no such certification had been made. (1% of examined products)
  • Protect yourself
    It might be time consuming to be as vigilant about green labels as you are about ingredients. Terrachoice recommends looking for eco-labelling, such as the ISO 14024, a standard recognized around the world. Go through the six sins checklist and if the product comes up short then proceed with caution.

    EnviroMedia Social Marketing has started a campaign asking consumers to send in examples of both good and bad green marketing campaigns to the Green Washing Index. EnviroMedia will then compile the list in time to hand it into the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at their forum "Eco in The Market" on January 8, 2008.

    Keep buying green, just do your homework beforehand.

    Susan Campbell is a Montreal-based writer.