Seventh Generation's greenwashing trifecta

The Greenwash Brigade responds to Jeffrey Hollender's interview with Marketplace's Sarah Gardner. Check back with the blog throughout the day as Hollender joins in the commenting.

Siegelbaum: I like Jeffrey Hollender's "greenwashing trifecta."

Look at the whole company, not the product: This is a pragmatic approach but occasionally a product is so blatantly lipstick-on-a-pig that it speaks volumes about a company's integrity, soundness of judgment and how it balances its green R&D with its sales rhetoric -- the product almost becomes a proxy for the entire company. People do tend to judge books (and wine labels) by their cover. Unfortunately, the product and its accompanying advertising is often all a consumer has to judge a company by unless that company creates an easy gateway to find CSR reports,
G3 reports (from the Global Reporting Initiative) and its behind the scenes political activity. This gets us into superficial greenwashing assessment versus deep corporate values assessment and asset valuation.

Want more juice? Go to Source Watch and what I call the goody bag of corporate research. Listening to the interview I was thinking about the effects of the trade association paradox which makes so many associations poised for obstructionist rhetoric rather than problem solving. That's where Toyota made its terrible misstep in conjunction with its automobile trade associations which lobbied heavily against increasing fuel mileage standards federally. It has cost Toyota its intangible goodwill asset value in the court of public opinion.

Sometimes we get trapped in a greenwashing conversation when what we are really addressing are the core values of a company and the trajectory its heavy engines are on.

Companies are not monoliths. There are small internecine wars waging between investors, innovators in-house and anachronistic Boards clutching to a 1950s business model that is making America uncompetitive. It is this sometimes schizophrenic path that drives greenwashing. We need companies to lead with the model of Corporation2020 and our policy makers to create a sustainable economic development model (Hollender and Seventh Generation support Corporation2020 and provide advisory services to them).

Honest, accurate advertising: Most labels can probably only carry the weight of honesty and not accuracy. The latter would require a few yards of labeling, but advertisements are a different matter. Selling "natural" products is irresistible but legally it means nothing. I'd opt for accuracy on a Web site and settle for honesty on the label. And as we've said before, if you don't have 200 ingredients on a label it's a lot easier to offer both.

Transparency: I wholeheartedly agree. This will be -- and is -- the most difficult step for most companies to make. But it's also where a supportive business and client community -- that recognizes the continuum of change -- can help promote green products and investments.

I like what GE is doing with Ecomagination but what does it say about them when they spend billions fighting to avoid cleaning up PCB-contaminated rivers, one very local to my own history? Is it greenwash? Can a Toyota's Prius be a foil to their lobbying against systematic changes in federal CAFE standards? Where's the beef?

Nicolow: While I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what Hollender said, I can't help wondering if we're asking the right questions.

For Hollender, the question is "how can you evaluate whether a corporation is green," and he proposes three criteria for making that determination (paraphrasing):
1) don't be a hypocrite - you can't sell a green product & a brown product
2) don't lie - don't say a brown product is a green product
3) don't hide - let the public see what you're doing

For Hollender, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Almost no one would meet Hollender's criteria, including his own Seventh Generation, and Clorox certainly won't get there overnight.

But, as Heidi points out, corporations are not monoliths. I think the question is: how can we rapidly transition to a more sustainable paradigm?

Rather than an all-or-nothing evaluation that no corporations could currently meet, I think we have more hope of catalyzing rapid change by celebrating the responsible products & activities that any corporation is involved in (as well as publicizing the bad). Seventh Generation should be celebrated for their many green products and operations, AND we should give them hell for the products that contained a known carcinogen. Bravo to Toyota for the Prius, but shame on them for fighting stricter CAFE standards. Sustainability is a direction, not a destination, and we need to celebrate any turns in the right direction.

Flisrand: This is a nice shift in sustainability coverage - from sustainable products to companies. Hollender's points strike me as sound. But how many consumers care? And for the few of us who do, how will we find out who "passes"?

This isn't my area of expertise, but I "get" sustainability and I'm smart enough, so I decided to check out Seventh Generation by following Heidi's links.

Folks, finding information turned out to be hard.

After 5 minutes, I realized her link to G3 reports is where to start. After 8 minutes there, I realize the the reports are found somewhere else, Corporate Register.com. When I tried to search for Seventh Generation, I noticed you have to sign up and sign in to search for reports. Going through the sign-up process, I learned I wasn't permitted to use Hotmail, AOL, yahoo! or similar e-mail accounts - what I think of as e-mail for the masses. (Thankfully, .gmail isn't banned.) Next, you have identify why you care, and the drop-down menu doesn't include consumer. The list: "corporate CSR professionals, CSR consultants, government, investors and analysts, media/journalists, NGOs & charities, academics, students, and other/support services." As a consumer, I chose "other" and then I had to select from a second, even more alienating list - think accountants.

I did eventually get through and found the 45-page long Seventh Generation PDF. I started skimming it and things sound pretty good, but I lost interest around page 25. Maybe I can find a more accessible source?

Scroogle, here I come. The first two hits were on the Seventh Generation site (Hollender's blog, and that 45-page report.) Not exactly unbiased. A press release that they'd released their 45-page report. Ah - here's a press release titled "Seventh Generation Honored with the National Corporate stewardship Award from the US Chamber of Commerce." And an Ethical Corporation page too, appreciating that Seventh Generation's 2004 report highlights "deficiencies in its corporate responsibility programmes." That seems useful. Ok, now I'm tired of this.

45 minutes after I'd started looking, I realize that I have slightly more evidence supporting my gut instinct - Seventh Generation seems to be a good company, CSR-wise.

What I actually learned is that using Hollender's criteria is time-consuming, and few consumers (myself included) are likely to bother very often.

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It sounds like Jeffrey, Heidi, Jim and I are all in general agreement - now I want to know what happens next to make it reality.

What would the easier system to help make decisions about what companies we want to support Jeffrey suggested look like?

First, thanks to Heidi, Jim and Janne for sharing their thoughts on corporate responsibility. This is a complex but urgently important part of the challenge we face as a society and as a planet. In the brief time I had to share my point of view during my conversation with Marketplace, I was not able to address many of the essential issues that were raised by the questions above. I totally agree with Heidi’s comment, "occasionally a product is so blatantly lipstick-on-a-pig that it speaks volumes about a company's integrity, soundness of judgment and how it balances its green R&D with its sales rhetoric." While a thorough look at the company is ideal, if it walks, talks and smells like a duck, trust your instinct and go no further. Most of us don't have the time and willingness to do the research that Janne did on Seventh Generation and that's a huge issue for most consumers. We need a much easier system to help make decisions about what companies we want to support.

I'm not sold on Eco Imagination; it's not just GE’s legacy with PVC's but their coal and nuclear energy business.

If you're going to slam a company's product and ad campaign, please identify the product. It's possible some of us have never heard of 7th Gen.

Thanks for clearing that up, Heidi. Not all of us have time to listen to interviews and read the blog discussion that follows.

I buy Seventh Generation laundry soap and individual rolls of tp. The blurbs on the packaging regarding energy and water savings convinced me that their products have substantial benefits.

Also, their tp is the only tp that I can find that isn't wrapped in plastic.

Tyson Foods just got into trouble for their antibiotic-free chicken ad campaign. The Washington Post reported that they have 14 days to dismantle the nationwide campaign (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/01/AR200805...).

This brings up a greenwash evaluation method we didn't address in this thread: in a competitive marketplace, a company's competitors have a compelling interest in ferreting out greenwash. It wasn't necessary for consumers to thoroughly research Tyson Food's claims, Sanderson and Purdue cried "fowl" instead. <grin>

Tyson had reported double-digit increases in sales of their so called "antibiotic-free chicken." The good news is that the whole industry may recognize the public demand for truly anti-biotic free chicken and change accordingly.

As an attorney involved with LEED consultants and companies interested in sustainability, I have a personal interest in the trends of "green-mania." I am excited by this attention. Corporate responsibility is the pivotal nexus in increasing public awareness of sustainability, as I find the ignorance of a meaningful definition of "green" to be as vast and as varying as the many definitions used by each different company and consumer. The average shopper looking for green products or seeking a company's assurances of green-ness are often unaware of the true meaning or standards. For those reasons, strict corporate governance / standards measurement is a necessity. Public and private funding to increase awareness is simply inadequate; ensuring companies are not hypocrites, are not lying, or hiding behind an ambiguous label are, at minimum, the criteria to which we should evaluate a company's commitment to sustainability... and have at least some modicum of control in the growing green-mania.

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