The Sins of Greenwashing

Aug 19, 2009

As the urge of ‘green living’ has risen so has the marketing and advertising claims of companies that are offering ‘green’ products. When a company offers products or services that claim to be ‘green’ but they really aren’t and/or do not give the perceived environmentally friendly affects as a result of using the product or service is greenwashing.

According to Terra Choice Environmental Marketing, there are seven sins of greenwashing.

  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
  2. Sin of No Proof
  3. Sin of Vagueness
  4. Sin of Irrelevance
  5. Sin of Fibbing
  6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
  7. Sin of Worshipping False Labels

According to Terra Choice, of the 1,018 products that made environmental claims, all but one committed at least one of the Six Sins. In 2007 they researched 1,753 environmental claims on these products. Terra Choice tested claims against the current best practices in environmental marketing. They quantified and analyzed their findings to create the list of the Sins of Greenwashing.

SIN OF THE HIDDEN TRADE-OFF – This is committed when a company suggests a product is green based on a single environmental attribute, such as 100 percent recycled packaging or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes while ignoring other possibly more important environmental attributes such as energy, global warming, conservation, etc.

SIN OF NO PROOF – This is an environmental claim that offers little or no proof that the claim can be substantiated easily or by a reliable third-party.

SIN OF VAGUENESS – This is a claim that is so broad of vague that its real meaning is probably misunderstood by the consumer. These could be claims such as chemical-free, non-toxic, all natural, and green.

SIN OF IRRELEVANCE – This is committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or irrelevant and does not help the consumer that is seeking the most environmentally friendly products. For example, if you see something labeled ‘CFC-free’ (chlorofluorocarbons) – a primary contributor to ozone depletion. Since CFC’s have been legally banned for almost 30 years, there are no products that are manufactured with it. While the claim is true, it does not offer any significant environmental benefit.

SIN OF FIBBING – Plain and simple, these claims are false. Most of the offenders in this category were misuse of misrepresentation of certification by an independent authority such as a shampoo being ‘certified organic’. No such certification could be found.

SIN OF LESSER OF TWO EVILS – These are ‘green’ claims that may be true within a product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole; such as ‘green’ insecticides. There are some circumstances where pesticides are essential for best yield on crops, but aren’t necessary for your lawn.

SIN OF WORSHIPPING LABELS – This is the latest sin to be added to Terra Choice’s list. This is committed through where a product may portray third-party endorsement, either through words or images, when there is none. Ways to Avoid Greenwashing

  1. Look for Eco-labels – look for products that have been certified by a qualified and third-party such as EcoLogo or Green Seal.
  2. Loom for evidence of any of the “Seven Sins” by asking questions. Research on the internet and use common sense when choosing your products and services.
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