How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #1: The Hidden Trade-Off

by Owner on April 22, 2009

As demand increases for green products, so too does the pressure for companies to create and promote them. While this can be a good thing, it is also extremely tempting for companies to make misleading green claims about their products. This leads to environmental harm as well as confusion and exasperation on the part of well-intentioned consumers.

This practice is called greenwashing, defined as “misleading consumers about the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Terrachoice, an environmental marketing firm, recently published their updated report titled “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” (which complemented their earlier 2007 report). Their findings were alarming. Researchers went into “big box” retail stores in several countries to find every product making an environmental claim. In the US and Canada, they found over 2200 products making almost 5000 green claims. When tested against best practices and government environmental guidelines, 98% of the surveyed products committed at least one of their seven sins of greenwashing.

Today we look at Sin #1 identified by the report: the hidden trade-off. This is defined as a company suggesting a “product is green based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.”

The example given is paper that comes from a sustainably harvested forest, where the product claims it is green without accounting for the paper-making process and its energy use, carbon emissions, water and air pollution, and so on–all of which may be at least as significant when determining how green a product really is. This type of greenwashing was by far the most common in the two studies, accounting for 57% of greenwashing claims.

The problem can be found everywhere. Take office equipment that touts energy efficiency, for example–while ignoring that the equipment was made with toxic materials or is incompatible with recycled paper.

Another example, one I pointed out before, is with bamboo products. While quick to tout the truthful claim that bamboo grows very quickly and is therefore a sustainable material, some manufacturers obscure the harsh chemical manufacturing process involved in turning raw bamboo into usable products.

Other products discovered by researchers to commit this greenwashing sin include ink cartridges, dishwasher and laundry detergent, bathroom and multi-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, flooring laminate, wood paneling, and pesticides.

So what can we as consumers do to avoid getting greenwashed by the hidden trade-off? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask yourself whether the green claim is restricted to just one issue or a narrow set of issues. What more is needed to form a complete picture? Think about: energy usage; transportation; greenhouse emissions; manufacturing materials (are they sustainable, toxic, recyclable?); secondary or unintended effects; and water usage.
  • Look for an eco-label. Not just any eco-label, but a meaningful one like Green Seal. A solid eco-label is a shortcut to finding a truly green product, because it denotes a product subjected to objective, publicly known green standards with third-party verification.
  • Don’t buy a product with a hidden trade-off. That’s simple enough–don’t support greenwashing by closing your wallet as far as those products are concerned.
  • Complain. Send a letter to the manufacturing company explaining your displeasure with their product’s hidden trade-off. If they hear from enough consumers they’ll hopefully either drop the green label or change their process to eliminate the trade-off.

First in a series. The full list:

How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #1: The Hidden Trade-Off
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #2: No Proof
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #3: Vagueness
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #4: Irrelevance
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #5: Lesser Of Two Evils
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #6: Fibbing
How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #7: Worshiping False Labels
Is A Greener Product Green Enough? Our Greenwashing Series Wrap-Up

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