From electric cars to reusable shopping bags, it's undeniable that "going green" is one of the fastest growing trends out there today. This is great news for the eco-friendly consumer, as companies are scrambling to offer greener versions of their products to meet demand. Unfortunately, many companies have also noticed that it's much cheaper to claim to have environmental standards than it is to actually live by them. When a company misleads its customers about the environmental impact of its products or practices, it's called greenwashing.
- Hidden Trade-Off: Labeling a product as environmentally friendly based on a small set of attributes (e.g., made of recycled content) when other attributes not addressed (e.g., energy use of manufacturing, gas emissions, etc.) might make a bigger impact on the eco-friendliness of a product as a whole.
- No Proof: Making an environmental claim without providing easily accessible evidence on either the label or the product website (e.g., a light bulb is touted as energy efficient with no supporting data).
- Vagueness: Using terms that are too broad or poorly defined to be properly understood (e.g., an "all-natural" cleaner may still contain harmful ingredients that are naturally occurring).
- Irrelevance: Stating something that is technically true but not a distinguishing factor when looking for eco-friendly products (e.g., advertised as "CFC-Free," but since CFCs are banned by law this is unremarkable).
- Lesser of Two Evils: Claiming to be greener than other products in its category when the category as a whole may be environmentally unfriendly (e.g., an organic cigarette may be greener, but, you know, it's still a cigarette).
- Fibbing: Advertising something that just isn't true (e.g., claims to be Energy Star Certified, but isn't).
- Worshipping False Labels: Implying that a product has a third-party endorsement or certification that doesn't actually exist, often through the use of fake certification labels.
As the TerraChoice study highlights, greenwashing is rampant, which makes it difficult to know who to trust. That's why here at True Goods we make sure to investigate the environmental claims of each and every product you'll find in our store. It takes a lot of work, but luckily we have allies in the fight for honesty in advertising. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission established a guide to set the standard for environmental marketing and help define what terms such as recyclable, compostable and non-toxic really mean. There are also a growing number of eco-labels, such as Energy Star, EcoLogo and Green Seal, which are certifications provided by dedicated organizations for products that meet their environmental standards. These are often more credible than the labels provided by manufacturers, since they are given from an impartial third party and often take into account the entirety of a product's manufacturing process.
While organizations can help put pressure on greenwashing practices, ultimately it's the consumer whose actions tell businesses that dishonesty won't be tolerated.
Are Sustainable Brand Messages Targeting the Wrong People?
Hear more from Radley Yeldar's Eileen Chen about why we should rethink our assumptions about sustainable consumers and why redefining our target demographics will serve the broader needs of our transition as a society — June 8 at Brand-Led Culture Change.
This post first appeared on the True Goods blog on June 5, 2013.