Tuesday, January 6, 2009

NEW ECO WORD TO KNOW: Greenwashing

One of the eco-friendly words you'll be hearing more about in 2009 is "greenwashing." Greenwashing is the act of saying that something (such as a product, program, or company) is green or environmentally friendly when it really isn't. Greenwashing deals with unsubstantiated or misleading claims about environmentally related benefits.

There's a lot of money to be made in green because it is hot on the list of current consumer interests. And since many of today's consumers are still relatively uneducated about what really makes a company, product, or product green (or even partially so), some companies are getting away with just using green buzz words that don't have substance behind them -- all in an effort to attract your attention.

Sample buzz words are

  • natural

  • clean

  • pure

  • nature

  • energy efficient

  • hybrid

  • green

  • solar

  • wind

  • carbon footprint

How can you know if there's anything behind a claim? There's no other way than to do a little research.

Here are some easy tips:

  • Look for evidence behind the buzz word -- Marketing will always be necessary to get your attention. So I don't fault companies for doing their job. But it's your job to look beyond the slogans and see if there is evidence to support their marketing claims. You can do this by reading more of a label's fine print, going online at the company's website, and doing a little Google search to see if there is anything else written up about the product -- information has never been easier to get!

  • Find out what the product is really made of -- READ! -- If it is a household product like a cleaner, the product should list ALL the ingredients; you can also look for a Material Safety Data Sheet online at the company's website to further determine a product's safety. For personal care products, you can utilize the Cosmetic Safety Database by Environmental Working Group to learn about ingredients and their safety. You also need to learn about other materials and ingredients to look for -- my upcoming book has a comprehensive list -- including seeking out products with no chlorine, and selecting paper and wood products that have some sort of forest-management certification or recycled content.

  • Subscribe to information that keeps you up to date -- With so much marketing spin, it is nearly impossible to have all the inside information on your own to completely identify greenwashing. So you have to continue educating yourself from trusted outside sources. You can subscribe to the RSS feed of eco-oriented blogs, such as mine and the ones I have listed on the homepage of this blog (see the right-hand column). I also like Plenty magazine.

  • Realize that no company is perfect -- It isn't easy to find a perfect eco-friendly company or product. You can certainly reduce and sometimes eliminate toxics and other safety issues, but waste, carbon footprint, packaging, and other environmental issues are often difficult to change or pinpoint. So, while it is good to keep your standards high, in many cases you're looking for green advantages rather than green perfection -- the more green advantages, the better. Put your attention and your wallet in that direction, and you will have a lot of influence. Eventually, regulation and consumer smarts will push to bring about much better options for you and the planet.

UPDATE: 1/15/09 -- Here is a link to the Federal Trade Commission's "Guide For The Use Of Environmental Marketing Claims." If you click on "Environmental Marketing Claims" you'll be taken to the part in the online document about what is considered truthful and what is deceptive with environmental marketing. A number of helpful examples are given including this one ...

A product wrapper is printed with the claim "Environmentally Friendly." Textual comments on the wrapper explain that the wrapper is "Environmentally Friendly because it was not chlorine bleached, a process that has been shown to create harmful substances." The wrapper was, in fact, not bleached with chlorine. However, the production of the wrapper now creates and releases to the environment significant quantities of other harmful substances. Since consumers are likely to interpret the "Environmentally Friendly" claim, in combination with the textual explanation, to mean that no significant harmful substances are currently released to the environment, the "Environmentally Friendly" claim would be deceptive.

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