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The Greenwash Brigade

New report: Greenwash grows in a bad economy

Janne K. Flisrand Apr 15, 2009

(Images via Terrachoice)

Greenwashing is up an average of 79% since 2007 (a rare expanding economic sector these days). Apparently, companies have discovered that one way to increase market share is to come up with new ways to greenwash.

Today, TerraChoice updated my favorite greenwash identification tool, The Six Sins of Greenwashing. Besides expanding their report to include the UK and Australia, they identified a new sin – so the update requires a new title, The Seven Sins of Greenwashing.

The new sin? The Sin of Worshiping False Labels

TerraChoice found that companies have responded to consumer demand for clear, green marketing by making up false certifications. As Scot Case of TerraChoice put it, “A lot of companies have gotten into the business of creating their own green ‘spots,’ and when a company does that… a lot of their products tend to meet it.”

As the report notes, this is a victory of sorts. The calls of the Greenwash Brigade and our allies for third-party certification have been heard by manufacturers and marketing companies – fully 23% of products commit the Sin of Worshiping False Labels. However, consumers are confused enough by the plethora of existing labels (which the Brigade discussed here on this blog). Adding fake labels only makes it worse.

Yesterday, buying a chocolate bar, I looked for a particular logo. I didn’t find the one I wanted, but I saw four I didn’t recognize. Were they even real?

How can consumers spot a false logo? Scot Case: “We started to make a little wallet card to explain what all the little logos meant. It was too big. We couldn’t get it to fit in a wallet. Then, we were going to make a purse card, and it still didn’t fit.” With over 300 logos, they set aside the idea of a suitcase card to focus on The Seven Sins as principles consumers could follow.

Scot also noted that the solution to the problem of too many logos is consolidation, where certifiers, retailers, or legislators set rules everyone has to play by. My fingers are crossed.

My (minor) criticisms

I love this report, and especially the new regional reports which make it feel much more relevant to me. I have a couple of quibbles with it, though.

First, I find their definition of greenwashing hard core, and I think it’s nearly impossible for products to avoid committing one of the sins. I’m more forgiving in my shopping. (Of course, I’m not in the business of providing eco-marketing or eco-labeling, unlike report sponsor TerraChoice and their EcoLogo.

Here’s an example. Most true single-attribute claims like organic get tarred with the Hidden Trade-off. Reading page 9, “swabs made of organically-grown cotton if the cotton had been bleached with chlorine” are guilty of this. Personally, I’m satisfied that organic is substantially better than the alternative. I prefer but don’t require perfection.

Second, I wish the report were clear what products should do where there is no third-party certification. They note that 44 baby products and 5 toys claim to be “Bisphenol A (BPA)-free.” Scot suggested consumers verify claims – and commented that we tend not to. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation for most consumers. I don’t have a viable alternative, though.

Last thoughts

Scot and I have passion to memorize logos and time to call manufacturers and retailers, but I’d argue we aren’t typical of the American consumer. I asked him point blank whether there’s any hope someone will hold manufacturers accountable. He’s cheerier than I am.

“I think there is hope, because more and more consumers are realizing that they’re being snookered as they face the problems that I’ve faced – that a manufacturer has flat out lied to them. And upset consumers is probably the most powerful force on the planet right now. If you get enough upset consumers, they can force manufacturers to change their manufacturing practices and marketing practices.”

I call on readers to go beyond this post to read the whole thing – it’s an easy and quick read. Then tell me and the readers of this blog – what do you recommend to consumers, to retailers, to manufacturers, or to TerraChoice?

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