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The Free Dictionary defines greenwashing as the dissemination of misleading information by an organization to conceal its abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.
Prevalence of Greenwashing
In the spring of 2007, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (a company that consults on green marketing and administers its own labeling and certification program), embarked on a study of green marketing claims of the products in so-called "big box stores" in North America. Research teams recorded each environmental claim they encountered in the stores, along with the product, the nature of the claim, any supporting information, and any references for more information. The teams evaluated many types of products ranging from personal care products to appliances to electronics. The team identified 1,018 products and 1,753 green claims. TerraChoice found that "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."
Six Sins of Greenwashing
As a result of its study, TerraChoice identified what it calls the six sins of greenwashing. These "sins" are:
The Sin of Hidden Tradeoff - Promoting a single green factor of a product without any attention to other important issues.
The Sin of No Proof - Unsubstantiated claims. For example, claiming a product was not tested on animals, but with no third party certification.
Sin of Vagueness - Poorly defined or overly broad claims, such as "chemical free."
Sin of Irrelevance - A claim that may be true, but is either unimportant or otherwise irrelevant. For example, claiming that a product is "CFC free" is irrelevant because CFCs have been outlawed since the late 1980s.
Sin of Fibbing - Claims of certification that are false.
Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils - A claim that may be true, but distracts from greater environmental impacts.
Illustrations of the Six Sins of Greenwashing
The following are examples that illustrate the types of greenwashing identified in the TerraChoice study.1 The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off, the most common type of greenwashing found in the TerraChoice study, is illustrated by the example of corn ethanol. Although it is true that corn absorbs carbon as it grows, which offsets the CO2 that is released when it is burned as ethanol, a recent study in Science cited by the World Resources Institute has shown that “over a 30 year span, ethanol from corn nearly doubles the greenhouse gas emissions of the equivalent amount of gasoline." The reason is that manufacturing ethanol is an energy-intensive process, and the use of corn for ethanol leads to an increase in the price of corn and demand for food crops, which in turn leads people around the world to clear new land for growing crops. Clearing new cropland, manufacturing, and transporting corn ethanol creates far more greenhouse gas emissions than are saved by its beneficial quality of absorbing carbon as it grows.
The second type of greenwashing, the Sin of No Proof, simply refers to an environmental claim which offers no supporting evidence. For example, a fireworks company decided to put on a green fireworks exhibit for PR purposes. They apparently offered no evidence that there was anything particularly green about this display other than the color of the fireworks themselves. Not only that, green-colored fireworks use the chemical agent Barium Carbonate [BaCO3], which, according to an employee of the fireworks company, “is probably the most harmful chemical used in the firework industry.”
Our third greenwashing sin, the Sin of Vagueness, often involves using terms that have “green” connotations without being sufficiently specific to determine whether or how they are beneficial to our health or the environment. Words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “recycled” are only meaningful to the extent that the claims they imply are specifically explained. For example, the terms “natural” and “organic” are often used in reference to health and beauty products. The Organic Consumer’s Association recently released a list of more than two dozen “natural” and “organic” soaps and other personal care products that contain the carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane. The state of California has initiated a lawsuit against Avalon Natural Products, Beaumont Products, Nutribiotic, and Whole foods Market California for failing to warn consumers about exposure to known carcinogenic chemicals in some of their "organic" and "natural" products.
The Sin of Irrelevance is illustrated by Tesco, the United Kingdom’s largest food retailer, for publishing a “Green Issue” of their regular magazine in which they advocated preparing foods from scratch and taking holidays in the UK rather than traveling abroad to curtail fuel emissions. Such appeals distract consumers from the issue of what Tesco is doing to make their own processes and products greener, and are irrelevant to whether the green consumer should choose their products. Moreover, in the same magazine, their own advertisers were promoting themselves through travel prizes that included trips as far away as California.
A company commits the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils when it makes claims that may be true within a restricted category, but that distract the consumer from the detrimental environmental impact of the category as a whole. For example, the New York Times magazine recently reported that Fiji bottled water has created a new image for itself by reducing its carbon emissions, establishing a reforestation program, and improving its packaging. Yet, it takes a product you can get from your tap, packages it in plastic, and ships it half way around the world to you.
The final type of greenwashing, The Sin of Fibbing, is comparatively rare. TerraChoice only found about 1% of environmental claims in its study committing this sin. With the rising price of gasoline, a proliferation of claims about ways that you can increase the gas mileage on your car have appeared on the internet. Ads claim that you can greatly improve your gas mileage by attaching devices to your car that convert water to a source of power for your engine or that use magnetic devices to accomplish similar results. Fortunately, the Sin of Fibbing does tend to rouse the attention of the FTC. For example, marketers of FuelMax Products settled a claim with the FTC and paid for consumer refunds after an investigation into deceptive claims about improving fuel efficiency.
Tips for Avoiding Greenwashing
One resource that can help consumers to combat greenwashing is certification. There are a number of highly reputable programs that certify particular products as beneficial to the environment. Certification programs vary in terms of cost as well as the level of assurance they can provide. Some are very reliable, but others are little more than sophisticated examples of the very greenwashing they claim to be preventing. Therefore, it is important to know which certification programs are reliable and why.
1These examples and resources were contributed by consumers who participate on a number of green forums and by merchants who belong to the Co-op America business network. They originally appeared in a publication entitled Greenwashing: Green Buyer Beware and are reprinted here with permission of the author.