Environmental awareness and “green” purchasing among consumers in North America is on the rise, according to a recent study of environmental claims in North American Consumer Markets.(view study) Green marketing claims are becoming a point of competitive distinction and social responsibility. As consumers use spending as an expression of their environmental commitment, they rely on the accuracy of the marketing claims that marketers make about their products. “Greenwashing” is a term used to define false or misleading claims.
The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its voluntary environmental marketing guidelines, which have not been updated since 1998 (Guides for Use of Evaluating Environmental Marketing Claims (the “Green Guides,” 16 CFR §260).
In the “Six Sins of Greenwashing,” TerraChoice describes the growing prevalence of false or misleading green marketing claims. They recommend that marketers claiming environmental benefits avoid “Greenwashing” by:
- not making claims about one environmental impact or benefit without knowing how the product performs in terms of its other impacts, and without sharing that information with customers;
- using caution in use of the recycling symbol (the mobius loop);
- avoiding use of terms that are vague (e.g., “environmentally-friendly”);
- not claiming any environmental benefit that is shared by all or most of a company’s competitors;
- providing evidence to anyone that asks, or rely on third party certifications such as EcoLogic or Green Seal (since those standards are public); and
- being honest and transparent in claims.
Of the 1,018 consumer products bearing 1,753 environmental claims in a national survey conducted, all but one product made at least one claim that was demonstrably false or that risked misleading intended audiences. Based on those survey results, TerraChoice identified the following six patterns of “Greenwashing:”
- “Hidden Trade-Offs:” Suggesting a product is ‘green’ based on a single environmental attribute (e.g., the recycled content of household tissues, paper towels or copy paper) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes (e.g., recycled content or chlorine-free bleaching of the paper) without attention to other important, or perhaps more important issues (e.g., energy used, GHG emissions produced, water consumed, or forest impacts of the paper production) constitutes a hidden trade-off, according to TerraChoice. Such claims are not usually false, but are used to paint a “greener” picture of the product than a more complete analysis would support.
- “No proof:” Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting data (e.g., at the point of purchase or at the product website), or by a reliable third-party certification. An example of a “no proof” sin would be facial tissues and paper towels that claim substantial post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.
- “Vagueness:” This category includes claims that are so unclear that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer.” An example of such a “sin” would be “Environmentally-Friendly” and “Earth-Friendly” claims – all meaningless without elaboration.
- “Irrelevance:” If all other products in the same category could make the same claim, then it is irrelevant. The most frequent example of an irrelevant claim relates to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – a principal contributor to ozone depletion. Since CFCs have been legally banned for almost 30 years, there are NO products that are manufactured with CFCs. Still, products bearing CFC-free claims are marketed.
- “Lesser of Two Evils:” When a “green” claim may be true within the product category, but that risk distracts the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole, this behavior constitutes the sin of the “lesser of two evils. An example would include “organic” cigarettes.
- “Fibbing:” When an environmental claim is simply false, it’s fibbing. In TerraChoice’s review very few products committed this greenwashing “Sin.” The most frequent examples in this study were false uses of third-party certifications. Eco-labeling is standardized by ISO 14024 and is recognized around the world.