Lies, Damn Lies, and the Seventh Sin of Greenwashing

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Seventh Sin of Greenwashing

In November 2007, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing unveiled a list of Six Sins of Greenwashing, laying out the most common mistakes that companies make in promoting their products and initiatives. Among the sins? The Sin of Vagueness, the Sin of Fibbing, and the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils.

TerraChoice is updating their list of sins this week, and have included a Seventh Sin of Greenwashing. To follow up on a similar interview he conducted in 2007, executive editor Joel Makower spoke with Scot Case, Vice President of TerraChoice, to talk about lies, damn lies, and greenwashing.

Joel Makower: Scott, it’s been about a year and a half since the original Six Sins of Greenwashing report. What you have you seen in the green marketplace since that first report?

Scot Case: Well, TerraChoice just completed a second study. What we did was actually reviewed almost 4,000 products across the U.S., Canada, U.K. , and Australia. What we found is that greenwashing is just as prevalent as it’s always been. We found that more than 98 percent of products out there making some sort of environmental claim were committing at least one of the sins of greenwashing. The other big finding from out study this year was what we’re now calling the “seventh sin,” which is the Sin of Worshiping False Labels. We found a large number of products — in fact, almost 25 percent of the study — making what appeared to be some sort of certification mark on products when there isn’t there isn’t actually some substance behind the mark on the product.

JM: Before we get to the seventh “sin,” let me ask you a big-picture question. I’m wondering if the bar you're setting is too high. If only 25 of 2,219 in the North America study passed, are you really grading fairly?

SC: I think that’s an excellent question, one that we really spent a lot of time talking about before launching the new study. And I think our bar is relatively simple: All we’re asking is that manufacturers back up their claims; that they actually provide some sort of proof that their environmental claims are accurate, and that they can be verified, and that are not intentionally misleading consumers.

JM: Isn’t one of the problems that a lot of the things companies are doing aren’t really claim-worthy. In other words, so many of the improvements — substantial, significant improvements that companies are making in their operations and in their processes and product designs and manufacturing and sourcing — are kind of hard stories to tell because they’re essentially about “doing less bad.” But equally important, a lot of the benefits of those initiatives aren’t things that show up in the products. So, in that sense, isn’t there a lot more that companies are doing that aren’t showing up in these claims and, therefore, you’re being a little to hard on them and exacerbating the existing skepticism that consumers already have about companies who are claiming to be greener?

SC: Well, there’s a couple of things going on. One, manufacturers are doing a lot of great things. 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.

JM: Can you give me an example of that?

SC: Sure. A product will make a claim that it contains 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. That’s a good, simple claim.

JM: Sounds straightforward to me.

SC: But then what they’ll do is add on top of that that “this is the greenest product ever made.” That it’s a wonderful green product because of that.

JM: That’s not a claim so much as the hyperbole that comes with any kind of marketing.

SC: I think that the challenge is that in this particular sector, we’ve got to be particularly precise with our language. 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.

JM: I don’t think that’s all that different from traditional marketing — that something gives you a “better night’s sleep” which is certainly a hard metric to prove, or that something will make you feel better. Isn’t a lot of this plain old marketing, and it’s sinister than maybe sloppy, but it’s not an underhanded move on the part of companies?

SC: I think it’s definitely sloppy. But I think the big difference is that with many other exaggerated claims, I as a consumer know when it’s true or false, eventually. So, the car manufacturer might tell me that I’m going to feel sexier driving this sport’s car. Now, I might be willing to believe that for a couple hundred miles, and eventually I’m going to realize that I'm no sexier than I was before. But when someone tells me that “this refrigerator is energy efficient and it’s using less energy and creating less global warming pollution because I’ve bought it — that’s not something I’m ever going to know whether it’s true or not. As a result, we should keep the bar very, very high to make sure we’re holding manufacturers accountable.

JM: So, one of the things that your company, Terrachoice, does is administer the EcoLogo certification seal for products. And there are about 3,000 [EcoLogo-labeled] products out there. Do those also flunk the Six Sins test by such a high rate?

SC: That’s actually the scary thing. We did have some EcoLogo-certified products that did fail. And we’ve actually worked with clients on this issue. What’s happened is that clients have said, “Look, if I stick with just what we can legitimately say I’m losing market share because everyone else is lying.” So even the legitimate players feel this pressure to exaggerate their environmental claims because everybody else is. And as a green consumer — someone who’s been passionate about this for almost as long as you — it frustrates me to know that people are intentionally misleading just because everyone else is going it. So if we can actually hold people accountable the truly green products can rise to the top and succeed in the marketplace.

JM: I think there’s an opposite effect going on — something that Bob Langert at McDonald’s calls “greenmuting.” He says — and I agree with this — that a lot of the improvements that companies are making are things that aren’t relevant to the reason people buy a product — that if you manufacture an aluminum can with a third less aluminum, when you consider the environmental impacts of bauxite mining, or the energy and carbon intensity of manufacturing aluminum, that’s a big deal. But it’s not a reason why people buy your beer. So, in some ways it’s the opposite of your Sin of Irrelevance, which is about making claims that are truthful but unimportant. There are many claims that companies could make that really are truthful and far more significant, but unimportant to the reason a consumer would buy something.

SC: I think that’s a very true statement. However, manufacturers can tell those kinds of stories on websites, and they do. They can tell those kinds of stories in press releases, and they do. If it’s not supposed to be consumer facing, don’t put it on the package. The challenge is when folks are actually trying to put all sorts of information on a package that just doesn’t belong there.

JM: You said there’s a seventh sin, worshiping false labels. And that I think has to do with the fact that some companies have created their own labels that aren’t third-party, independent, consensus-built, the way that, say, Green Seal or EcoLogo or a number of other so-called Type I eco-labels are. I’m wondering if some companies have done that because they’ve been frustrated with the shortcomings of some of those labels. I’m thinking of SC Johnson, for example, which is using a Greenlist logo, which I think everyone recognizes is a bona fide program to reduce toxics in their products — and they’ve created that label for themselves. Is that a sin?

SC: I think that’s the issue. There’s a couple of things. There are a variety of different types of environmental labels that are truly legitimate. We did not include just Type I, such as EcoLogo or Green Seal, in our list of legitimate labels. The litmus test for whether a label was legitimate or not was quite simple: Can a consumer find out exactly what that label means? And so when you take something like what SC Johnson is doing with their Greenlist — it’s a wonderful program — but it was designed for the internal engineers to use when building products. It was not originally designed to be a consumer-facing strategy. And so when consumers ask the simple question “What does this label on my product mean? What ingredients are prohibited? What ingredients are not in it that used to be?” — the label doesn’t provide any of those kinds of things. So the Greenlist program is wonderfully important — they’ve won all sorts of awards and it’s definitely helped them improve their products — but it’s not done anything to explain to consumers what that label actually means.

So, that’s one example. But there are lots of others. We found toy manufacturers that are putting a green leaf on a product or something. And we’ll call the manufacturers, we’ll visit their websites, and we’ll say, “So, what does this green leaf mean?” And we’ve actually had people say, “Well, it just means that because it’s made of wood that it must be a greener product, so we put that on there.” That's not helping consumers make truly green decisions.

JM: What do think of the entry of some significant institutions that are now getting into either eco-labeling or verification — I’m thinking here of Good Housekeeping Institute and Underwriters Laboratories, both of which are launching some kind of green labeling or certification or verification process. Is that going to help?

SC: It’s kind of interesting. I see two big huge issues out there. One issue is what’s known as “label proliferation.” These green spots are popping up all over the place. So consumers have to figure out which labels are legitimate and which are fake. We started trying to make a little wallet card that would identify all of the legitimate environmental labels — what the labels mean. And it grew difficult. We couldn’t fit it in a wallet, so we made a purse-size one just trying to list the 300 or more labels and explain what they mean. So, label proliferation makes it incredibly difficult for consumers. They have to know what this label is for these kinds of products, that label for those kinds of products. I would love to see a universal mark — one brand that lots of different brands and certifiers could use — one market to make it easy for consumers.

The second issue on top of label proliferation is what I’m referring to as the orphan products problem. There are an awful log of products for which there aren’t any standards, for which their aren’t any environmental certification programs.

So, on one hand we have label proliferation, where you have five or six different labels certifying cleaning chemicals. And on the other hand, you have a whole lot of orphan products for which no one’s developed standards.

JM: Like what?

SC: Well, look at things like toys. At this time there aren’t actually any environmental standards out there to protect my six-year-old and my four-year-old. How am I supposed to know what’s in these toys, what’s in those baby dolls that my kids are using? What’s in the kids’ make-up that these two little girls are using?

JM: So, who’s going to create those standards?

SC: Well, I think what we need is to get rid of this label-proliferation challenge. We've actually had clients come to us and say they’re interested in developing standards, they’re interested in developing something to make sure this is a green widget, but they’re afraid to do it, because in a world with more than 300 labels and new ones popping up every week, they’re not convinced that the mark will ever mean anything. And so that becomes a really big challenge. Luckily, we’ve got people like Senator [Diane] Feinstein [D-Calif.] that are actually beginning to look into this issue and trying to decide whether federal legislation might be a path forward.

JM: So you think we can regulate our way to eco-label truthfulness?

SC: I’m not sure. I think there are three pathways. Federal legislation might just force some truth into the matter. It’s also possible that the large retailers could crack down and say, “We are upset by these misleading claims and we’re going to force some accountability into the system.” Another option would be if the legitimate environmental labels — EcoLogo, Green Seal, and others — actually banded together and created a system to make it easier for consumers.

JM: It seems that last item has been tried before — at least you all have talked about doing things together — and that never went anywhere.

SC: Well, I think it’s a big challenge. But a lot of the early discussions were more than ten years ago, back when consumers really weren’t paying much attention — and back when there were only 20 or 30 labels. Now that we’re living in a world with more than 300, I think the severity of the problem is much better known.

JM: This all feels pretty discouraging, frankly, for anybody who’s trying to make a difference. And with the growing number of companies that are making significant changes to their operations and their strategies, in some cases embracing environmental improvements dramatically, others incrementally — it seems like this is a hard slog to get any kind of recognition in the marketplace, at least from consumers. Are you hopeful, or do you continue to be discouraged by all this?

SC: The results of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing study are disappointing. But what we have found with this seventh sin — the worshiping of false labels — we began to realize how big of a problem it is. There’s a lawyer in Florida, for example. Send him a check for 250 bucks, he’ll send you a certification — a green diploma, if you will. There are people who actually advertise in trade publications that they will certify your products — there’s no testing required, no standard required, no on-site visit. Just send us a check. It’s no wonder consumers are confused. It’s no wonder they turn around and see greenwashing everywhere. It’s because there’s enough completely false, illegitimate claims out there that the truly innovative companies — the ones with truly green products — are getting lost in the green fog.

JM: I didn’t hear a lot of optimism in that answer.

SC: Well, here’s where the optimism comes in. I think if enough people actually pay attention to the sins of greenwashing and actually arm themselves with some of the materials that are on, that they will actually begin asking better questions, making better demands of the manufacturers and of the retailers who are supplying the products. And I actually do believe in the power of the free market. I actually do believe that eventually truth will prevail. But in order for truth to prevail, the consumers have to be educated. And right now what’s happening is that we have a large number of manufacturers that are taking advantage of the fact that consumers haven’t educated themselves. And so I think what we’re going to see is that as more consumers are educated, the truly green products will float to the top.

JM: There’s a lot of work to do, but this is a good start. Thanks so much for talking, Scot.

SC: Thanks, Joel.