This post by Joel Makower looks into a recent survey by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. They sent out teams to investigate any products making green claims. After initially identifying 1,081 products making 1,753 separate claims they found "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."
The results of this research can be found in a new report 'The Six Sins of Greenwashing'
The "sins" identified by TerraChoice include:
Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off — claims that suggest a product is "green" based on a single environmental attribute (the recycled content of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important, or perhaps more important, environmental issues (such as the energy, climate, water, or forestry impacts of paper). Such claims aren't usually false, but paint a misleading picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would support. This was the most frequently committed "sin," made by 57% of all environmental claims examined.
Sin of No Proof (26% of all claims examined) — any claim that couldn't be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. TerraChoice determined there to be "no proof" if supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase or at the product website.
Sin of Vagueness (11% of all claims examined) — any 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" or "all natural."
Sin of Irrelevance (4% of all claims examined) — claims that may be truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful for consumers, such as CFC-free products, since ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons have been outlawed since the late 1980s.
Sin of Lesser of Two Evils (1% of all claims examined) — environmental claims that may be true, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole, such as organic tobacco or green insecticides.
Sin of Fibbing (less than 1% of all claims examined) — claims that are simply false, typically by misusing or misrepresenting certification by an independent authority, when no such certification had been made.
I agree with Joel Makower's point that not all of these are necessarily greenwashing and that some of the cases are probably down to sloppiness.
"marketers' efforts to place a green sheen on a product, perhaps rightfully so, but without offering some basic proof points."
But what does this all mean or green marketing and for those brands that really do help us minimise our impact on the planet. Well, it's basically bad news isn't it? Any genuine effort to offer a greener product or service could be met with scepticism. The last wave of green marketing we saw during the nineties eventually died a death because it too was based on a lot of marketing hot air and people saw through it.
I think the real danger is if people are successful with their greenwashing efforts, then the truly green, the truly innovative companies — the ones that have really figured out how to reduce their carbon footprint, how to produce a nontoxic product, how to make products out of renewable materials that can be reused — the truly innovative products are going to lose out.