By Carolina Luna
Whether for personal health or the global environment, more consumers than ever are looking for eco-conscious options. For many, that means buying household products labeled as “organic”, “all-natural”, or “green”, but what many don’t realize is that some “green” products are really not so green.
Are companies misleading consumers with deceptive information and cynical labeling? It’s easy to go through a store today and see products decorated with pictures of leaves, trees, and green-trimmed packaging touting the environmental benefits of the product. Commercials by oil companies tout their alternative-energy bonafides, including one famous case of an oil company spending many times more on the self-congratulatory advertising for such a program than for the actual program itself.
There is a name for this eco-cynicism: “Greenwashing.”
The University of Oregon in conjunction with the Greenwashing Index, have defined greenwashing as the marketing and advertising done by a company or organization to promote their products as “green” without implementing any significant eco-friendly practices. Companies use ambiguous words, pro-nature graphics, or false information to attract potential consumers. By using words like “biodegradable”, “green”, “earth smart”, or “environmentally friendly”, companies have claim that their products are not harmful to the environment. But these words are meaningless, they aren’t tied to independent guidelines, standards, or provide scientific data to consumers. Instead, consumers are being lured by companies into purchasing their products.
In 2008-2009 a Canadian consulting company, TerraChoice, surveyed more than 4,000 “green” products in North America. According to the study, over 95 percent of them were misleading consumers with dubious information. Companies, argues TerraChoice, were committing one or more of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”: false labels (the fabrication of third- party endorsements), no proof (the lack of substantiate information or third party certification), vagueness (the unclear environmental claims that only confuses the consumer), fibbing (fabrication or outright lying), of irrelevance (the insignificant environmental claims), hidden trade-offs (the concealment of not-so-green business practices), and of lesser of two evils (value-laden assertions). Nonetheless, TerraChoice has noted that “sin”-free products have increase at a notable rate since 2007 (about 4.5 percent).
TerraChoice argues that to avoid greenwashing companies must explain thoroughly their “green” products by providing reliable information to consumers. It also recommends an independent third party certification process.
However, we still need to be vigilant and remember an “all-natural” label or a green package does not guarantee that such a product is eco-friendly. In addition, a “green” product that claims to be “non-toxic” implies that such product does not represent an imminent or over a long-term hazard to humans and the environment. According to Greenerchoices.org, “There is no definition or standard used for judging whether a consumer product or its ingredients are ‘non-toxic’, and no assurance that such a claim has been independently verified.” Therefore, to avoid misleading and meaningless wording “green” products need to be certified by an independent source or a third party such as EcoLogo or Green Seal.
The Government’s Role in Greenwashing
For over a decade companies have been engaging in greenwashing and consequently misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of their products, according to Magali Delmas and Vanessa Cuerel Burbano of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. In the U.S., regulation of greenwashing is limited and its enforcement is virtually non-existent. Hence companies engage in rampant greenwashing despite the risks (lawsuits) because of the current careless and uncertain state of regulation.
In 1992 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, better known as the Green Guides, to assist companies from making false environmental claims that were unfair and deceiving for consumers; sadly, the guidelines were last updated in 1998 and they leave a lot of questions. The Green Guides do not define words like “all-natural” or “eco-smart”; they are simply general guides that do not specify wording or phrases. Currently, the FTC is reviewing its Green Guides for a much-needed update, but in the meantime consumers are more vulnerable than ever to greenwashing.
As more and more companies jump into the “green” bandwagon, consumers must question and scrutinize their “green” facts. Independent reviewers such as Consumer Reports and Greenerchoices.org are probably the best way to double-check a company’s green claims. And, of course, it would be helpful if the FTC better defines the so-called “green” adjectives to protect consumers from fuzzy and misleading information.