Skip to main content

Two Steps Forward

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: Is everybody lying?

Is just about everyone out there pulling the green wool over our collective eyes, or has the bar been set unreasonably high?

An updated version of the 2007 report The Six Sins of Greenwashing has just been released. And like its predecessor, this version offers sensational findings: of 2,219 products making environmental claims that researchers found in North American retailers, "over 98 percent" committed one of several "sins." The 2007 report identified six such sins. This year's edition adds a seventh.

I suppose that's what passes for progress these days.

First, some background. In 2007, TerraChoice, a Canadian research firm that operates the Canadian government's EcoLogo program, sent research teams into six category-leading "big box" stores with orders "to record every product-based environmental claim they observed." TerraChoice then assessed each of the claims to see if they passed muster -- that is, that they were specific, substantive, and could be backed up with some reasonable proof points, among other criteria. All told, out of just over 1,000 products, "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."

Late last year, TerraChoice repeated the process, though extended its reach: Its researchers were sent into retailers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia. The track record was slightly better: 25 products found in North American stores were deemed "sin-free," says TerraChoice. The trends were similar in the other countries.

Is just about everyone out there pulling the green wool over our collective eyes, or has the bar been set unreasonably high?

At first glance, those findings seem dire and depressing. But much like some of the eco-claims themselves, TerraChoice's report doesn't hold up to scrutiny. What's really going on here? Are manufacturers truly that overwhelmingly misleading? Is just about everyone out there pulling the green wool over our collective eyes? Or has TerraChoice set a bar so unreasonably high that even the most well-intentioned companies can't clear it, and lumped the imperfect claims together with the truly bad ones in order to make its point? In other words, who's greenwashing who?

Truth is, there's a little of each going on.

First, honor is due. TerraChoice has performed a public service here, calling attention to the fact that so many companies are making claims that are anything from fuzzy to fraudulent. The groundwork they've done here is invaluable, even if the conclusions they've drawn from it are, in my opinion, a bit misleading.

At first glance, TerraChoice's methodology seems reasonable. They put products making green claims through their filter that asks, in effect:

  • Is the claim truthful?
  • Does the company offer validation for its claim from an independent and trusted third party?
  • Is the claim specific, using terms that have agreed-upon definitions, not vague ones like "natural" or "nontoxic"?
  • Is the claim relevant to the product it accompanies?
  • Does the claim address the product's principal environmental impact(s) or does it distract consumers from the product's real problems?

Products that failed to meet such requirements committed one or more "sins." As you can see, almost every product has done so.

Is the bar too high? Scot Case doesn't think so. "Manufacturers are doing a lot of great things," Case, the TerraChoice executive who headed the study, told me recently. "They are making significant advances. The challenge seems to be that their rhetoric is outpacing the actual improvements that they're making. So, we found all of these products -- many of them make wonderfully specific, legitimate environmental claims. And they would be perfect, except that they want to take one more step and make an outrageous claim. And that's why the percentage of products that end up on the sinner's list is so high. It's because the marketers don't seem to know when to stop."

I asked for an example. "A product will make a claim that it contains 30 percent post-consumer recycled content," Case explained. "That's a good, simple claim. But then what they'll do is add on top of that that 'This is the greenest product ever made.'"

I countered that such a statement, should it truly exist, isn't an environmental claim so much as the typical hyperbole that is part and parcel of marketing of all types. It's akin to a mattress company claiming that their product is "Your ticket to a better night's sleep," or a beer company's claim that its product, "Tastes great. Less filling." It's not provable; it's just hype. Consumers are left to use their own smarts to discern the difference.

"I think that the challenge is that in this particular sector, we've got to be particularly precise with our language," responded Case. "Because what we're talking about are things that consumers can't see. When a manufacturer claims, for example, that their product is energy efficient, or that it meets the Energy Star standard, that's not something that I as an average consumer can test. When I'm walking the store down the refrigerator aisle, I don't have some sort of magic device to know if it's really energy efficient or not. So it seems appropriate that a manufacturer should be willing to provide proof and to make that proof widely available for me and other consumers."

Now, before we go further, it should be noted that not long ago, Case bought a refrigerator he believed to be energy efficient, but which ended up using twice as much electricity as the manufacturer claimed. So, he's got some cold, hard experience here about misleading green claims. However, it sounds to me like he was a victim not of greenwashing, but consumer fraud.

But that's not what much of the "greenwashing" documented by TerraChoice is about. Some of it is about companies like SC Johnson, the maker of such venerable consumer brands as Glade, Pledge, Raid, and Windex, which has taken aggressive measures to reduce the toxic ingredients of its products and processes. Its Greenlist rating system -- about which I've written in the past -- has been systematically reducing the toxic ingredients and packaging of all of its products since 2001. Greenlist has won a bevy of awards, including honors from environmental groups and a Presidential Green Chemistry Award.

But Greenlist is a self-certified claim -- that is, it has not hired an independent third-party organization like Case's to verify the claim. Thus, it's verboten -- a "sinner," according to TerraChoice.

I asked Case about Greenlist. "It's a wonderful program," he acknowledged. But, he added, "The litmus test for whether a label was legitimate or not was quite simple: Can a consumer find out exactly what that label means?"

I suspect they can, if they conduct the same 10-second Google search I just did. The top result was a page on SC Johnson's website that provided as much information as I think any reasonable consumer would want or expect, with deeper links for those who want to know more.

The point here isn't to debate Greenlist or anything else. It's that, as I've pointed out before, a lot of what's called "greenwash" is in the eye of the beholder. What for some consumers might be a reasonable and meaningful marketing claim can be seen by others to be a travesty of justice. Sometimes the criticism is justified; often it's nit-picking.

I don't really know how many of TerraChoice's "sinners" amount to nit-picking. That's one of the ironic problems with the study: It lacks transparency and accountability. There are no products named, no sinners shamed. Are the "sins" detected by TerraChoice really all that egregious or, as I suggested last time, are the accused companies more sloppy than sinister? We don't know. Is SC Johnson as big a sinner as the toy company Case described that put its own green seal on a product because it decided unilaterally that wood was a greener choice than plastic? It's hard to tell. We are left with only the sensational factoid --98 percent! -- and not the supporting evidence. We must make up our own minds whether to believe the facts, and what to make of them.

Kind of like some of the "sinners" TerraChoice is trying to fight.

No doubt, countless consumers, already suspecting the worst about companies' green motivations, will accept TerraChoice's findings as gospel -- after all, it confirms their suspicions -- not bothering to question what's behind them.

In the end, I can't help but wonder which is worse: The companies that aren't being fully truthful or transparent about their claims, or the consumers who will walk away from the green marketplace in frustration, dismissing all green products -- the good ones and the rest -- as cynical ploys by uncaring companies intended solely at separating consumers from their wallets.

More on this topic