Friday, April 17, 2009

Is it as "green" as they say? Mostly, nope.

You knew this, right? When most companies tell you they're “green,” they're lying—at least a little.

(Image: Is it really green? This image represents the "greenwashing" Sin of Vagueness. Source: Terrachoice Environmental Marketing.)

The technique is called “greenwashing,” and it's designed to convince consumers that the product is somehow better than competitors, or is safer, or has reduced negative impact on the environment.

The environmental marketing firm Terrachoice has issued its 2009 version of the Sins of Greenwashing.

You can read it yourself at the link above, but as we're here to do some of the work for you, here are some highlights.

Terrachoice identified seven “sins” of greenwashing, and then went out and checked more than 2,200 products sold in North America. Its conclusion: 98 percent committed at least one sin.

Put another way, that means that only one product out of 50 is actually as environmentally friendly as it says it is.

And what are the Terrachoice seven sins? Here they are, from the Greenwashing Sins report.

One, the hidden trade-off. Saying paper from a sustainably harvested forest is actually greener may be false if that paper is produced with higher levels of greenhouse gases or water pollution.

Two, no proof. Some products claim recycled content, for example, that nobody has checked.

Three, vagueness. “All-natural” doesn't mean safe, or green. Botulism is natural, as is lead and also radioactive plutonium. (Yep, "radioactive" plutonium commits a kind of sin, since most any plutionium you're likely to find will be radioactive.")

Four, irrelevance. Terrachoice uses the example “CFC-free.” It's kind of meaningless, since CFC content is illegal. Makes as much sense as a label saying “Contains no nuclear weapons” on a bottle of beer.

Five, lesser of two evils. Like, organic cigarettes are better for you than regular ones.

Six, fibbing. Making claims that are outright false. Thankfully, this sin is the least common, Terrachoice says.

And the newest addition to the list, Sin Seven: worshipping false labels. This can take several forms, among them posting some kind of meaningless “certification” image. Some companies use logos that don't actually have any certification process behind them.

The whole business challenges consumers to do more than read labels, but also to think about them.

If a can of beans says “eco-friendly,” you can legitimately ask, “Says who?”

If a shaker of baby powder says “all natural,” you can ask, “But what about allergens and toxicity?”

And lots of products say they're biodegradable. But this puts the burden on the buyer, because unless you subject the product to the exact conditions it needs to biodegrade, it won't. Example: biodegradable plastics made from corn require fairly high heat and moisture to break down. An average backyard compost bin won't degrade it very quickly, and if it goes to the landfill, it may not degrade in your lifetime.

When you do see a logo, pay attention. These are the ones Terrachoice has determined have some validity: Design for the Environment, U.S. EPA; EcoCert; EcoLogo; Energy Star; Epeat; Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); Green Seal; Greenguard; Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI); USDA Organic; WaterSense.

These aren't all the legit certification logos, so don't reject a product simply for the lack of one of these. On the other hand, encourage firms to convince you with real data rather than a slogan and a picture.

“In the absence of a reliable eco-label, remember the Seven Sins of Greenwashing ( and choose the product that offers transparency, information and education,” said Terrachoice.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

1 comment:

Keahi Pelayo said...

I was born in 1960. The world was really polluted then, seems way better now. What gives?