Greenwashing - A National Sin?
Throughout the mid-nineties and up until the early part of this decade, I worked in the organic cotton, hemp, and recycled apparel industry. I began as an employee and then partner in a retail store on Venice Beach and in Santa Monica, California. Then manufactured a line of men's and women's undergarments called, Alternative Undies, with my wife. Over the years, I traveled extensively promoting our clothing line, alongside several other small businesses in our fledgling industry.
We became a member of several trade associations. Most notably the Organic Trade Association, (OTA) and Co-op America (COA.) We exclusively purchased textiles with approved third party certifications, such as California Certified Organic Farmer's (CCOF,) the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movement (IFOAM,) and the International Inspection and Certification Organization (SKAL.) We clearly labeled our products with the authorizing agents certification symbols.
Additionally, we worked directly with small, local cut and sew operations to assure fair wages were paid. In fact, one of our main sewers was a business in Alameda, California which involved two sisters and one of their eldest twenty-something year old sons. That was it; just the three of them working out of a small office with about ten sewing machines. All the machines necessary to delicately assemble and uniquely stitches required for both swimwear and sexy lingerie.
In the late nineties, at the trade shows and in the OTA and COA newsletters a new term began to circulate: greenwashing. Without ever hearing the word before, we all immediately knew what it meant. Of course, it is a portmanteau of the words green and whitewash. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary now defines greenwash as: "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."
Most companies cited for greenwashing spend more time and money advertising being green then they do actually expending the resources to actually be green. At Alternative Undies, we spent a premium for bolts of organic cotton and hemp fabrics. We partnered with small, local companies to assure a fair and living wage. And as a result, our wholesale price was anywhere between 10 and 20 percent higher than conventional cotton products made in the U.S.A.
Companies that engaged in greenwashing directly undermined everything we were doing. They presented a false impression to the consumer which could only result in both confusion and distrust in terms like "organic" in labeling.
Last month, the environmental marketing agency TerraChoice released a follow up to their widely reported research on greenwashing, first published in 2007. Startlingly, they found, "Of the 2,219 North American products surveyed, over 98% committed at least one of the previously identified Six Sins of Greenwashing and a new Seventh Sin emerged."
Here is the quick summary of TerraChoice's newly updated Seven Sins of Greenwashing:
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, committed by suggesting a product is 'green' based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, including energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and air pollution, may be equally or more significant.
2. Sin of No Proof, committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.
3. Sin of Vagueness, committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. 'All-natural' is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. 'All natural' isn't necessarily 'green'.
4. Sin of Irrelevance, committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. 'CFC-free' is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.
5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, committed by claims that may be true within the product category,
but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category
as a whole. Organic cigarettes are an example of this category, as are fuel-efficient
6. Sin of Fibbing, the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims
that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to
be Energy Star certified or registered.
7. The Sin of Worshiping False Labels, is committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists.
It seems unfathomable to me to think that 98% of the products TerraChoice surveyed engaged in Greenwashing. The current research also notes a 79% increase in products making green claims. On the other hand, the report found legitimate eco-labeling nearly doubled in the past two years. Increasing from 13.7% to 23.4% of products making green claims. However, tragically, some committed either the sin of no proof or the sin of fibbing. http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/
In researching this story, it was great to go back to the OTA's website and read their current reports, the total sales of organic products were "$17.7 billion in 2006, up 21 percent from 2005. They are estimated to have reached $21.2 billion in 2007, and are projected to surpass $25 billion in 2008." http://www.ota.com/pics/documents/Mini%20fact%201-08%20confirming.PDF
It is nice to see that in spite of all the false and misleading claims and labeling out there in the market, green businesses are still able to grow. Nonetheless, the sad reality is that there is very little, or shall I say nearly no, policing of greenwashing in the U.S. In fact, here is an excerpt from the Federal Trade Commission's website on the legal guidelines in green marketing;
260.2 Scope of guides
These guides apply to environmental claims included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials and all other forms of marketing, whether asserted directly or by implication, through words, symbols, emblems, logos, depictions, product brand names, or through any other means, including marketing through digital or electronic means, such as the Internet or electronic mail. The guides apply to any claim about the environmental attributes of a product, package or service in connection with the sale, offering for sale, or marketing of such product, package or service for personal, family or household use, or for commercial, institutional or industrial use.
Because the guides are not legislative rules under Section 18 of the FTC Act, they are not themselves enforceable regulations, nor do they have the force and effect of law. (emphasis added) The guides themselves do not preempt regulation of other federal agencies or of state and local bodies governing the use of environmental marketing claims. Compliance with federal, state or local law and regulations concerning such claims, however, will not necessarily preclude Commission law enforcement action under Section 5. http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm
This opens the door to all kinds of unscrupulous behavior by companies willing to exploit consumers interest in purchasing safe, clean and green products. Products they believe will help reduce their personal impact on the planet. It also leaves the responsibility of policing these companies in the hands of the consumers and consumer watchdogs.
One group not usually known as a consumer watchdog organization, but nonetheless is doing an excellent job informing the public about greenwashing just so happens to be another one of my former employers, Greenpeace. While the TerraChoice research focuses on cosmetics and household cleaning products, Greenpeace has targeted big industries like the energy and auto sectors. They have put together an excellent site dedicated to exposing companies that engage in these so called eco-sins. Here is a link to their greenwashing website: http://www.stopgreenwash.org/introduction
As consumers, the main thing we can do is educate ourselves. Learn what labels are recognized and authentic and which companies are actually making green products. Learn which companies have egregiously engage in greenwashing. Read the TerraChoice research, check out Co-Op America's and Greenpeace's websites. Then, and most importantly, support the companies that you find are best aligned with your own values.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.