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The Greenwash Brigade wraps: What's changed in three years?

Almost three years ago, Marketplace launched the Greenwash Brigade to explore the evolving green marketplace through the commentary of experts in green building, community development, eco-tourism, green transportation and corporate social responsibility -- and we found four great bloggers through the Public Insight Network. Janne, Jim, Heidi and Dennis have made an important contribution to the public conversation around greenwash. Today, sustainability blogging on Marketplace.org is moving into a new phase, that will offer readers and listeners more opportunities to participate. (Stay tuned to Adriene Hill's Easy Answers blog for more details.)

As we wrap the Greenwash Brigade, I've asked Janne, Jim and Heidi to consider the past and the future of green business -- and greenwash. Please join me in thanking the bloggers of the Greenwash Brigade for three years of fresh (and sometimes sassy) insights. (And rest assured: All posts and comments on this blog will continue to be available as an archive.)

Thank you.

Q: The Greenwash Brigade began in a very different economy. From your vantage point, how has environmental awareness among consumers changed since 2007?

Jim Nicolow: I am an architect so I tend to view environmental awareness through the lens of green building. With the economic collapse in 2008 we experienced a decrease in the overall amount of design work available (and a dramatic increase in competition for what remains), but surprisingly it seems that green building interest has continued to grow. The institutional building market (government, college & university, etc.) had already largely begun to embrace green building by fall 2007 when we started the Greenwash Brigade. And the private sector housing market seemed poised to follow the institutional market's lead. We began to see a great deal of green building interest in that sector in 2008. Of course the building industry in general, and the speculative housing market in particular, is heavily impacted by economic cycles so that nascent green building interest in the housing market basically disappeared when that work came to a near standstill. Over these three years, green building and specifically LEED certification have grown to the point where they have become almost mainstream in the institutional market. Green building interest in the affordable housing market has also exploded recently. And I expect green building will soon become common in the speculative housing market when it recovers. As the green building market has matured, the cost premium for green building has dramatically decreased. When consumers are aware that they have a choice, most will choose green over conventional practice if there is little to no cost premium.

Janne Flisrand: I have mixed opinions about this question. I get a sense that there's growing momentum around energy efficiency, especially in the residential housing market, and that builders are starting to get the idea of "test in-test out" -- third party certification for homes -- but that there's an increasing belief that people won't pay for it AND builders don't care to prioritize it in their budgets.

I think that's also the case in a lot of consumer product areas where people get it more and more, but retailers are sure consumers won't want to pay for it.

On the other hand, when I go into my local paint store, three years ago they told me I was misguided when I asked for low-VOC paint, and now they're pushing it and can even tell me how many grams/liter of VOCs are in a given paint can.

Heidi Siegelbaum: Changes in environmental awareness in the last three years? It depends... on who you are, where you live and how vigorous non profits and government agencies are in providing tools for making better buying decisions.

The FTC is still flat on its proverbial face in enforcement and with an incredible uptick in the marketability of "green" anything, the market is flooded with even more claims that render consumers overwhelmed. Certainly the proliferation of third party certification systems for products has made environmentally preferable choices more transparent, but what consumer gets a flyer in the mail regarding these systems? There has been demonstrated progress in the areas of cosmetics, cleaning chemicals and food at the very least.

Q: Three years ago green marketing was entering the mainstream and greenwash was a new concept for consumers. What's changed since then?

Jim: Consumers' environmental awareness has grown over the past three years and the marketing industry has responded with an explosion of Greenwash. Everything is now green. PVC is green. Coal is green. Oil is green.

Janne: I think the biggest difference is that the concept of "certification" or "third-party certified" has become much more familiar to both retailers and to consumers. There continues to be a lot of confusion around which labels are trustworthy, and the ever-growing number of certifiers or groups claiming to certify is making the ground messy. This was also identified by TerraChoice as the 7th Sin of Greenwashing - the sin of worshiping false labels. Consumers are also more aware that they need to pay attention. I've been receiving more inquiries about what language means and what is believable.

Heidi: Green marketing has seen an incredible surge in popularity in a mere three years according to a recent report by [Environmental Leader and MediaBuyerPlanner]( increase-green-marketing-spend.html). In the quest to understand the buying habits of the Cultural Creative demographic, 80% of those surveyed said they expect to spend more on green marketing in the future. Interestingly, small firms with marketing budgets under $250,000 plan to spend up to 26% on green marketing. Look for healthy cleaning supplies, carbon neutral products, carbon offsets, and natural you-name-its -- all compostable.

I'm not sure we're trimming down our consumption in a value theory-based way of understanding our purchasing habits. Despite a few highly-touted public exercises in asceticism, people tend to drown their sorrows in purchasing... even if it's in seeds, food, crafts and other home-bound projects.

Q: In your own career you educate consumers at the same time as you provide services. How have consumer attitudes about consumption and sustainability evolved, and how do you see them continuing to change? How has your own role adapted?

Jim: Our consumers have a much more nuanced understanding of green building now than they did three years ago, and much higher expectations. We have moved from the general to the specific. It's becoming much more about performance metrics and proven performance.

Janne: Many of the "consumers" I educate are local government policy makers. In the last year, they've been approaching me with ideas to make sustainability easier for the residents living and working in their communities. For example, one city is exploring ways to use rental licensing as a tool to increase the healthiness and energy efficiency of housing. Another city is looking for ways to provide quality information to homeowners on how to "green" their homes when they are doing remodeling, making it easy for them to do the right thing. The questions have moved from convincing to facilitating.

I think a lot of the tools that have appeared over the last three years are doing the same thing -- GoodGuide is one example that works to make it easy for consumers to make decisions they feel good about. Greenwashing is starting to take the same form. A new listing of green home services providers has popped up in Minnesota that isn't (yet) requiring any standards to participate, along the same lines as that Angie's List "Eco-friendly" designation, where a company says they have eco-friendly practices and then get the designation.

Heidi: The Gulf Oil spill was emblematic of our collective inability (perhaps understandable, since no one makes the impact of our buying decisions particularly clear) to link our habit of driving apartment-sized vehicles with the demand for oil and our corresponding willingness to invest in high risk fuel exploration. My role has been to create lists of consumer links for clients and friends that cover everything from home buying to cleaning chemicals, toys, holiday shopping and my BFF, the Cosmetics Database. I've also devolved to candid but sometimes oversimplified explanations of why "less than dead" (chronic illnesses traced to what we buy and consume) is not a great option.

Q: Final thoughts: greenwash -- a force for good or evil in the universe?

Jim: I don't see greenwash so much as a force for good or evil but rather a symptom of change. As I posited in a previous GB post I think greenwash is a symptom of the business community's recognition that the public is demanding that they do better, and prepared to reward those that do. The quickest response is simply to re-brand your company to make it look greener (greenwash). But Hunter Lovins said that "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change." Most companies will move from greenwash to meaningful change. Greenwash is a gateway drug.

Janne: I hate black and white questions! I'm going with evil, this time. Someone with authority (like the Federal Trade Commission) needs to use that authority to limit greenwashing claims, like some European countries have done. People are getting more educated, but they shouldn't have to. In my daily work, I often say people shouldn't have to become experts in building science, being able to describe the stack effect or understanding what SHGC stands for in order to get an efficient home - they should be able to ask for it and get it. The same thing should hold for buying cleaning products, food, or electronics. People shouldn't have to study technical information in order to be responsible consumers -- they should be able to feel confident that they're responsible in their purchases without having to think.

Heidi: Greenwashing is an expression of our intent to use criteria beyond product cost - environment and health - in how we live and purchase. These factors are inextricably linked, but the irresistible allure of natural product sales opens the floodgates for spurious claims that non profits and government agencies still are incapable of addressing at a consumer level. Greenwash is both devil and angel on your organic cotton-draped shoulder.

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