The True Price of Greenwashing



Greenwashing is a term used to describe the perception of consumers they are being misled by a company regarding the environmental practices of the company or the environmental practices of a benefit or a service.

The determination of who is green and who is not

Companies who practice any one of the following practices, referred to as the six sins of Greenwashing with their products can be considered guilty of greenwashing:

The first sin is the hidden trade-off which suggests a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute or a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. An example is Home renovation products which claim indoor air quality benefits without attention to other environmental aspects such as recyclability.

The second sin is having no proof of the greenness of your product or service. Any environmental claim which cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification should not be trusted. An example of this is household lamps and lights which promote their energy efficiency but are not Energy Smart certified.

The sin of vagueness is committed by the environmental claim which is so poorly defined or broad its real meaning is prone to be misunderstood. Many products are promoted to be chemical-free but nothing is entirely free of chemicals.

The sin of Irrelevance is committed by making an environmental claim which may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. The most frequent example of an irrelevant claim relates to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – a principal contributor to ozone depletion. Since CFCs have been banned for almost 30 years, there are no products manufactured with it. Nevertheless, we found many individual products which presented CFC-free claims as a unique environmental advantage.

The sin of lying is committed by making environmental claims which are simply false. More ever, a knowing attempt to deceive the consumer in attempt to itch their product as green. For example, a dishwasher detergent which purports to be packaged in “100% recycled paper”, and yet the container in fact is plastic.

The last sin is a lesser of two evils where “green” claims which may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Example companies promote “Green” insecticides and herbicides however how “green” can these be since these products are designed to kill organisms like their non-green counterparts?

TerraChoice found in its 2007 Whitepaper found 1,018 products which made environmental        claims, all but one committed at least one of the six sins.

The long term result of greenwashing

The value of being green will be diluted since now people will not know the difference between who is green and who is not. Ultimately, this benefits companies who are not green and looking to cash in on recent demand for greener products.

As example of this was cited in Anna Lappe’s book “Diet for a Hot Planet” where she stated “And more cynical consumers become more likely the distrust of all claims to think no consumer decision they make holds greater consequence than any other. While 8 out of 10 Americans believe it is important to buy green 7 out of 10 believe when a product is called green it is generally a marketing tactic”.

I shudder the think the ultimate price for greenwashing would be there would not be any true green products at all. Is this too pessimistic?