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Renouncing the Six Sins of Greenwashing

According to a new report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, nearly every green product on the market is making claims that are either inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated. Is this greenwash or just plain sloppiness? Joel Makower spoke with Scot Case of TerraChoice to find out.

With the growing number of green products coming into the marketplace, it's no surprise that some of them may be -- well, stretching the truth. But it turns out that misstating green claims isn't limited to just a few bad apples.

According to a new report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, nearly every green product on the market is making claims that are either inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated. Is this greenwash or just plain sloppiness? Executive Editor Joel Makower talked with Scot Case, Vice President of TerraChoice, and author of a new report on the "Six Sins of Greenwashing," to find out.

Joel Makower: So, Scot you've just released this report called, "The Six Sins of Greenwashing." Give me a little background about how you came to do this, why and what you're trying to accomplish.

Scot Case: Absolutely. I think what we've noticed over the last couple of years is that there are more and more environmental claims being placed on products and as we saw more and more claims we got to wondering well, where's the evidence? What's the proof?

Some of the claims were absolutely ridiculous. Essentially nontoxic. What the heck kind of claim is that? So we actually decided to see is greenwashting a trend? Is it a real problem or are we just being hypersensitive?

So what we did is we actually visited six large box store retailers around North America. So from the do-it-yourself improvement sections, the general retailers, drugstores, food stores, etcetera, we picked six large retailers. We pulled 1,018 products off of store shelves that were making some sort of environmental claim.

And what we then did is asked a couple of key questions. Well, what claim is being made? What proof is there that a product actually meets this claim and what we found is that a vast majority couldn't answer simple questions.

JM: Like what?

SC: Simple questions like what's the proof? Someone might make a claim that this is an environmental friendly product. Wonderful. What's your definition for environmentally friendly? You're making this claim. Surely you have some sort of definition.

And they didn't even have a definition. They couldn't explain it. It wasn't on their website. You would call their toll-free 800-number and they had no information.

So what we said is all right. Let's take a step back. Let's look at this carefully. We actually pulled out all of the different environmental marketing guidelines. We looked at what the Federal Trade Commission says about environmental marketing claims. We looked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommendations. We looked at ISO's recommendations. We looked at what Consumer Union, the Publisher Consumer Reports said about it.

And we said, okay, so these are going to be the standards to evaluate these environmental claims. So we took this 1,018 products. We squished them through these different environmental claims and only one popped out the other side as not having committed what we're now calling one of the six sins of greenwashing.

JM: So let me understand that. Of over 1,000 different products only one of them didn't commit one of the six sins?

SC: Absolutely. And so we of course immediately panicked that that means we're being way too strict. And we went back and we said, well, no. People have been talking about environmental marketing and green products for 20 years now and there are plenty of studies out there that said this is the kind of information that consumers need in order to make an educated choice.

JM: Okay. So let's quickly go through what are the six sins.

SC: Very good. So the six sins -- and you can see them on our report which is of course available on the web site at But the six sins -- I will kind of read them off in order of most significance I guess.

The first is the sin of the hidden trade-off. Now this is kind of a fun one because a lot of products out there are making a claim about let's say a single environmental issue. They might say, "My product has recycled content." Did you know my product has recycled content? It's got recycled content in it. Joel, isn't it wonderful? It's got recycled content in it.

And you say, "Well, that's wonderful but what about the manufacturing process?" How that product was made? What about the other impacts of that product? And what's the recycled content percentage anyway? If it's 20 percent recycled content what's the other 80 percent?

So what we're seeing is that some people might promote, say, their product's really, really energy efficient but it's also mercury laden. Is that really a green product?

And so we saw that as the sin of the hidden tradeoff which is focusing the consumer's attention on only one environmental issue as if that was the only thing a consumer needed to worry about. It's like calling something a healthy food just because it doesn't have any salt in it. That doesn't mean it's a healthy food. It means there's no salt in it.

JM: Okay. Good. What's next?

SC: Another one. How about the sin of irrelevance? Here's a fun one. Which is -

JM: I think I've committed that a few times.

SC: I think sometimes my life is that way. But the sin of irrelevance. Let's say for example it's making a factually true statement that really has no bearing on whether a product is green or not. And probably the most prevalent example we saw the sin of irrelevance is products claiming that they were environmental friendly because they were CFC free.

All right? So these are products that are claiming they have no chlorofluorocarbons in them. That's great. But CFCs were banned in the 1980s so all that claim is really saying is hey, we're obeying the law. Well, big whopdedodedah! Who cares? That's not an environmental claim but consumers are being misled into thinking that somehow that's a green product.

JM: Okay. What's next?

SC: How about the sin of vagueness? So people will make a broad, sweeping claim. This is an environmentally friendly product. Well, that's a very vague term. What the heck does that mean? That doesn't really help the consumer unless you are providing a lot of additional information about, you know, that it's green. Here's why it's green. So the sin of vagueness.

How about the sin of relativism? So the other way of calling the sin of relativism is the sin of the lesser of two evils. And this is kind of a fun one where people are making environmental claims about products that are in no way environmentally friendly at all.

So the best example I think would be things like organic cigarettes. All right. Well, there's an interesting concept but is an organic cigarette any healthier for you than a non-organic cigarette?

JM: Yeah. That's a little bit of an extreme. Give me a more practical kind of -

SC: All right. A more practical example there. We found a lot of it on pesticide products. Particularly for use in lawn and garden care where what they were calling an environmentally friendly pesticide really was not even a necessary product to begin with. Probably another good example would be the environmentally friendly mouse killer. So this was an environmentally friendly rat poison. Okay?

Now there are much better ways to control rodents than poisoning them. And I really don't want the rat crawling into my wall and dying anyway so I don't think it's generally a good idea but there are safer ways of doing it.

JM: Okay. So I think we have one more to go?

SC: I think we do and the last one of course would be the sin of fibbing which is just outright lying. Now, I will tell you this was a very, very small percentage that would meet the sin of fibbing but we did in fact find two that were kind of interesting.

One where there were a number of products that claimed to be Energy Star qualified yet the U.S. Energy Star Program had zero evidence that these folks existed at all so we had to conclude and after talking with the companies and getting no answers that that's just a sin of outright fibbing, lying.

Another example of the sin of fibbing, we actually found a product that was packaged in plastic bottles and on the label it proudly said, "Packaged in 100 percent recycled paper." So it was a plastic bottle with a claim that it was packaged in 100 percent recycled paper so we figured that one probably counts as the sin of fibbing because we didn't have a sin of just being plain stupid.

JM: So you've got these six sins and it's really interesting to hear them. I would imagine that some people would say, okay, fibbing clearly not the right thing to do. It's wrong. It should be illegal perhaps. But some of these things may be a distinction between being perfect or simply being admirable. Where do you draw the line about how good do you have to be? How perfect does a product have to be to make a green claim?

SC: Yeah. Well, and this is the interesting thing. We were not saying that we were trying to measure how green the product was. We were only looking at the claims that were being made and I think where we decided ultimately is that you have to provide accurate and useful information to the consumer.

And what we found was a lot of folks providing information that really doesn't help the consumer choose between products or not. The equivalent -- and we kind of talked about different analogies -- is it's like saying this car is more safe than other cars because we put little valve stems on the tires so the air doesn't leak out.

Well, okay, that's a true statement and it's accurate and maybe that's helpful information but if you're talking about auto safety that's such an irrelevant point that it's kind of the equivalent. So our calling a car safe and having never actually tested it, having never proven that it meets a crash safety test.

So we were really kind of saying if you want to make an environment claim be completely honest, completely transparent, provide sufficient information for consumers to go online, to make a phone call, and learn exactly what you mean.

JM: So that sounds to me like to be honest common sense. The kind of thing that any company doing marketing should be doing. How come more companies aren't taking those basic steps?

SC: I think it really boils down to no one is asking the really tough questions. This green movement, and Joel you've been here for a long time, you've seen the ups and downs of the green movement. We are now entering a phase where the consumers have a lot more access to information than they have ever had in the past.

So now when a skeptical consumer sees environmental marketing information, they have at their disposal ways to test and verify and dig and get dirt and go online, read your blog, read other information, and find out is this claim legitimate or not.

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, what it does is just wake people up. That people are expecting a higher level of scrutiny than they used to need for these kinds of claims.

JM: So we're here at the U.S. Green Building Council's Green Build Conference 2007 and there's hundreds and hundreds of both big and small vendors here displaying their wares and if you walk up and down the aisles of course it's a green conference so you're gonna expect to see green claims. But these claims -- I mean I saw things, everything sustainable this and eco that and there's one a few feet from us now where there's a big sign that says, "It's green friendly."

I mean it seems to me that the green building movement has some dangers of overreaching here.

SC: Absolutely. And I think this is kind of where we're at. If you look at the green building movement, you have the lead standard. And the lead standard says this is how we're gonna define what a green building is. So that's great. You have a metric. You know what you have to do in order to get the standard.

That's not yet true for all of the products. So you have all these manufacturers that know they need to sell green products but they're not real sure what that means or how to go about doing it and so they kind of grasp. I'm just gonna call it eco this or I'm gonna put green in the name of my company or I'm going to just call it sustainable or environmentally friendly.

And when you ask them, and I have and I'm sure you have, you walk down the aisle and you say, "Well, what's the standard? What's the basis for this claim?" And they can't answer the question? I mean that's such a simple question.

I mean you're claiming this is a green product. And you can't tell me why? You're making a claim that this is a greener product than everybody else here and you don't have a standard to compare it to? You can't tell me why? Is that too much to ask?

JM: Well, I mean I think a lot of people would say, "Okay, it's marketing and marketing is about hyping and telling the story. It may be bending or stretching the truth a little bit whether it's a green product or a car, a computer, cosmetics or clothing or whatever it is, what's the real danger here??

SC: 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 gonna lose out.

And so what we need is a way to make sure that the truly innovative products are playing on a level playing field. If we allow larger organizations to just greenwash over this and not really innovate, not really create green products, we all lose.

JM: Are you hopeful?

SC: I am. I'm hopeful because more and more consumers are learning to ask tough questions. We're living in an age when people can walk around with a video camera the size of my pinky finger and when they're visiting a factory they can take pictures.

As consumer I can walk into a retail store now, look at a product on a store shelf, go online with my cell phone and learn about the environmental features of that product. More and more people are demanding that level of information and it doesn't have to be everybody. If just a certain percentage, maybe 2 percent of the consumers start asking really tough questions, then everyone is gonna be held accountable and everybody will have to rise to this larger challenge.

So I would hope when we redo our greenwashing study in another year that we find significantly fewer instances of greenwashing.

JM: Scot, thanks very much for taking the time.

SC: Thanks, Joel.

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