The overwhelming majority of environmental marketing claims in North America are inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated, according to a comprehensive survey released today.

According to a report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, "greenwashing is pervasive," with the risk that "Well-intentioned consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise."

In the spring of 2007, TerraChoice sent research teams into six category-leading "big box" retail stores with instructions to "record every product-based environmental claim they observed." In all, the teams examined 1,018 consumer products bearing 1,753 environmental claims. Products ranged from cleaning and personal care products to televisions and printers.

Of the products examined, "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences," according to the report.

TerraChoice identified six types of labeling problems. They include claims that had no proof to back up their assertions, claims that are so vague that their meaning is likely to be misunderstood by consumers, claims that are irrelevant to their respective products, claims that are technically true but distract consumers from a product's real problems, and claims that misuse or misrepresent certification by an independent authority.

"We are now entering a phase where the consumers have a lot more access to information than they have ever had in the past," says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice. "I think the marketing departments haven't quite realized what strong demand there is for that kind of transparency. So I would hope that this six sins of greenwashing will wake people up -- that people are expecting a higher level of scrutiny than they used to need for these kinds of claims."

The report offers suggestions for both marketers to avoid each of the six “sins” in the future, as well as to consumers to help them ask tough questions when they see marketing claims.

Misleading consumers on environmental marketing claims can have significant impacts, says Case. “I think the real danger is if people are successful with their greenwashing efforts, then the truly green, the truly innovative companies -- the ones that have really figured out how to reduce their carbon footprint, how to produce a nontoxic product, how to make products out of renewable materials that can be reused and are really -- the truly innovative products are going to lose out.”

The report can be downloaded from the TerraChoice website.