Green or Greenwash?: A guide to environmental claims

July 31, 2008
Written by
green_paint
It’s safe to say that the green movement is here to stay. More and more people are asking about how products are made and are taking the time to consider how their actions will affect the environment. For many consumers, knowing a product is eco-friendly can be a major factor when it comes to deciding whether or not they should make the purchase.

Looking at it from a business standpoint, it’s important that retailers who do incorporate green practices into their business promote that fact and let their customers know. But before you begin to make any environmentally friendly claims, it’s important you evaluate the product and phrase carefully to be sure that your claims are true. There are companies out there taking advantage of eco-conscious consumers by slapping false labels and claims to products to let consumers know they’re “all natural,” “eco-friendly” and “sustainable.” This has led to a practice called “greenwashing,” a term used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

As a result, consumers are becoming more cynical of the green marketing they see when they’re shopping. A poll commissioned by Toronto-based advertising agency Bensimon Byrne found that while 80 per cent of Canadians think about the environment when making a purchase, 75 per cent are suspicious of what they read. Sixty-five per cent of the survey’s respondents say the word “green” has been used so often that it is no longer a meaningful descriptor and 86 per cent want standards regulating the use of terms like organic, low emissions and green. There’s also some skepticism when it comes to green pricing – 65 per cent of respondents say they don’t believe environmentally friendly alternatives are more expensive to produce.

The study also produced some good news as well – despite the suspicion, 88 per cent of women still think about the environment when shopping, as do 71 per cent of men. As a retailer, you need to examine what makes your products eco-friendly and be aware of the greenwashing sins. Within the last year alone, several reports have been published to warn both the public and businesses about common greenwashing missteps. Last November, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing conducted a survey of 1,018 products and found that all but one made claims that were either false or misleading. Based on the survey results, TerraChoice identified six greenwashing patterns, which they recognize as “The Six Sins of Greenwashing.” Here’s a look at the list, beginning with the most commonly committed sins:

• Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off –This is committed when it is suggested that a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute without attention to other environmental issues. The claim might not be false, but it’s painted a “greener” picture of the product than it deserves.

• Sin of No Proof – An eco-claim that can’t be supported with easily accessible information or by a reliable third-party certification (i.e., saying a product isn’t tested on animals but providing no proof).

• Sin of Vagueness – A claim that is so poorly defined or so broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer (i.e., a chemical-free claim when in fact nothing is free of chemicals – even water is a chemical).

• Sin of Irrelevance – An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers looking for eco-products (i.e., many products claim they are CFC free, but CFCs have been banned for 30 years, therefore no products contain it).

• Sin of Lesser of Two Evils – Green claims that may be true within the product category but that could distract the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the product as a whole (i.e., organic cigarettes).

• Sin of Fibbing – Committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.

 Most recently at the end of June, the Competition Bureau Canada, in collaboration with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) released its own set of guidelines to provide the business community with the tools to ensure that green marketing is not misleading. Entitled “Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers,” the guide addresses commonly used green claims and gives examples of how businesses can promote their green efforts without using false or misleading claims that might confuse consumers.

The key concepts and best practices outline in the guide include:

• General or vague claims: Terms like “green”, “environmentally friendly”, “all natural”, “environmentally safe” and “eco” are discouraged because they don’t provide consumers with an exact or specific meaning and are difficult to prove.

• Substantiated and verified: The guide says businesses should only make claims that they can support and verify. Supporting information must exist and must be available for the environmental claims and this information has to be accurate and reliable.

• The recycling symbol: Also called the Mobius Loop (the recycling symbol with arrows that form a triangle), the guide states that this symbol can be used on packaging or on the product but must have an explanatory statement if there’s any confusion as to what the symbol applies to. If the symbol is used to identify “made of recycled content” then a percentage of the recycled content should appear with the symbol.

The document is effective in clarifying for the eco-confused what type of phrasing is discouraged and how to make proper environmental claims when data can’t be properly verified by a third-party. The standards outlined in the 72-page guide will be used in a one-year transition phase so legitimate businesses will have the chance to change their marketing practices to follow the standards outlined in the guide. However, the Bureau warns that this is not necessarily a greenwash-grace period for businesses and says they will still pursue major cases of deceptive environmental claims.

During the one-year period, the Bureau and the CSA will work to raise awareness about the new environmental guidelines and will accept suggestions and input from retailers and consumers in regards to the guide.

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