How to get real green from your green certifications

There's a new kind of buyer's remorse in the marketplace. It's the environmentally aware purchaser who has been tricked into purchasing something or using a service that they thought was green but is not at all sustainable; more so a product of clever marketing.

In the hopes of providing a future for our children, or maybe just saving our own hides, many of us are suckers for anything touting itself as green these days. There are so many labels, certifications and ads — how can we tell the difference between something that actually does benefit the environment and something that is the advertising equivalent of promising a more virile sex life? This recent misrepresentation in marketing has a name: Green (read: Brain) Washing.

Take it from someone who has been green-cuckolded before. As an environmental scientist, I'm not proud to admit that I have been hoodwinked when I should have known better. It's also a testament to just how careful you have to be.

There was the "green hotel" I stayed in that didn't have a single recycling bin in the whole hotel. There was the carbon offset I purchased for my car where 75 percent of the contribution went to the executives, not to any carbon projects. Then there were the green gardeners who were so cautious about impacts to the environment that they never actually did any work on the garden but still charged me for it.

New third-party programs have sprouted up to market a service or business as green. Some are all about collecting expensive fees for a window decal; others are growing their programs slowly with small baby steps; and a few are very comprehensive programs. The ones that a discerning buyer needs to be aware of are the ones that are greenwashing in green business programs, or marketing a service as green while doing very little or nothing at all.

One industry that has been quick to jump on the green bandwagon is the hospitality industry. The hotel industry can potentially earn huge returns on investment in both reduced utility bills and increased patronage by meeting certain environmental standards. Efforts such as upgrading lighting and heating/cooling systems, replacing toilets and providing recycling bins with outreach to customers can reduce their operating costs. However, there is an initial capital cost for these changes and many hotels are realizing that they can simply pay a few grand, fill out an online form and be listed as a "green hotel" with several iconic leaves next to its name. This is much easier than replacing all the toilets and doing a major lighting upgrade.

Consumers see a label on a shop window or a web listing and assume that this is a business that pays attention to its triple bottom line. There are two types of programs: self-certified programs that allow a business to pay a fee, fill out a form and gain a seal, and third-party-verified programs.