How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #2: No Proof

by Owner on May 1, 2009

Today we look at the second sin of greenwashing identified by Terrachoice, and second in our greenwashing series: the Sin of No Proof. Terrachoice identified this sin as the second most common way in which companies mislabel their products as green, with 26% of evaluated products falling into this greenwashing trap.

The Sin of No Proof is just what it sounds like: it’s when products make green claims that cannot be verified by easily accessible confirming information, or by reliable third-party certification. “No proof” means lack of proof on the product package, surrounding sales copy, or on the product’s website.

Examples cited of this sin included:

  • household lamps and bulbs that promote energy efficiency without offering any evidence or certification;
  • personal care products that claim no animal testing but offer no proof or third-party verification;
  • paper towels and tissues claiming post-consumer recycled content without offering any evidence.

I’m sure we can think of many other examples.

It’s not that companies offering these products are necessarily lying (that’s a separate sin altogether.) They may well be telling the truth, but they’re asking that consumers take their claims on faith, rather than offering hard evidence to allow consumers to make up their own minds.

Sometimes this may be because it’s difficult to provide the proof. For example, a meaningful certification may not exist for the claim in question, so that there is no objective label a company can apply. But other claims should be relatively easy to prove–surely a cosmetics company could come up with some objective third party to come into its labs and confirm that delicate rabbit eyes are not being used in testing their latest mascara.

So how do we fight this second sin of greenwashing, and avoid falling into the trap of no proof? Here are some ideas:

1) “Where’s the beef?” Do what the ladies in the old Wendy’s commercials did: demand to be shown the proof. Where is the proof of the claim in question? Look at the product’s labeling, the marketing materials surrounding the product at the store, and of course on the product’s website. If you can’t find it, write to the company and demand it.

2) Research the product. The Internet is a wonderful way for other people to weigh in on consumer products. What are other people saying about the proof offered by a product? Why is there no proof–is it impossible to provide? If there is offered proof, is it valid? Is that green certification on the product actually meaningful?

3) Buyer beware. If you don’t find good proof, then don’t deceive yourself about what you’re getting. The product MAY truly be green, or it may not. Maybe it’s somewhat greener than the conventional product next to it, while still having some problems of its own.

As always, refusing to buy the product–especially with a strongly worded message to the company–is the best way to discourage this greenwashing practice.

Second 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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Is Energy Star Still Relevant? | EcoVillageGreen
May 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Diana May 1, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Great series – I think it’s all to easy to start trusting that when a company says it’s green, it is green. There are a lot of eco-buzzwords out there that are being misused!

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Learned the Hardway May 9, 2009 at 8:18 am

I learned this lesson the hard way. I bought a refrigerator made by LG Electronics that claimed it was Energy Star compliant. It turns out, however, that the refrigerator uses twice as much electricity as LG claimed and doesn’t even come close to meeting the Energy Star standard.

The Energy Star standard does not require fridge manufacturers to provide proof of their claims. Manufacturers are just allowed to put the label on when they think it meets the Energy Star criteria.

Companies should be required to provide proof. How are we supposed to know otherwise.

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Joe Barrios May 9, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Thanks for posting about your experience. You’ve touched on a pretty major controversy surrounding the Energy Star program.

The problems with Energy Star include relatively antiquated standards that take a long time to update, and that DOE/EPA do not provide objective third party verification of Energy Star compliance–instead leaving that up to voluntary testing by the appliance makers. That’s kind of like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Consumer Reports wrote on this subject, and you can find it here:
http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/resource-center/energy-star-has-lost-some-luster/overview/energy-star-ov.htm

Interestingly, LG refrigerators were mentioned, pointing out that LG’s Energy Star testing for some of their fridges took place with the icemaker turned off, which made the refrigerators comply with the Energy Star standard. However that is not a realistic way of testing, since almost nobody would turn off the icemaker, and CR found that the fridge used more than double the energy (in gross violation of Energy Star) when the icemaker was turned on.

DOE wasted NO time in stripping the guilty LG refrigerators of their Energy Star status (http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/manuf_res/PressRelease_DOE_LG_SettlementAgreement.pdf), demonstrating again the value of independent third party testing.

To be fair to LG, it was relying on a DOE loophole that allowed the icemaker to be turned off, such that DOE is at least as much at fault. Where LG went wrong, according to the DOE press release, is that while the icemaker can be turned off the temperature of the ice storage compartment must remain at its coldest setting, whereas when LG turned off the icemaker it also turned off the ice storage compartment’s cooling element. Is it reasonable for DOE to assume that the ice maker and the ice storage temperature control will always have separate on/off switches? Beats me, but it’s this kind of loophole nonsense that can cast doubt on what should be a great energy efficiency certification.

What’s annoying is that consumers are SUPPOSED to rely on standards like Energy Star to avoid greenwashing and do the right thing for the environment. Lack of verification and old standards defeat the purpose of the label. Hopefully good people like the folks at CR will continue to expose problems with Energy Star certifications and keep companies honest.

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Learned the Hardway May 10, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Thanks for replying to my post. I shared your response with a new friend at the Fridge Fury website — http://www.lgfridgefury.org

He explained that LG Electronics was not exploiting a loophole in the Energy Star criteria. LG chose to use an outdated test methodology rather than the test method required by the Energy Star criteria. Either LG Electronics read the Energy Star criteria and chose to ignore the test requirements — OR — LG Electronics never read the Energy Star criteria.

Either way, LG Electronics should not have been using the Energy Star label on those products.

And, despite your assertion that the Department of Energy quickly rectified things, DOE actually ignored the most important aspects of the LG fraud. DOE asked LG to reimburse consumers for the additional electricity they consumed as a result of the fraudulent data LG provided. DOE did not, however, require LG to offset the additional global warming pollution resulting from the LG fraud.

Avoiding global warming pollution is the entire reason I and others bought the LG frdige to begin with. Shouldn’t that issue have also been addressed?!?

Even more interestingly, the Consumer Reports article also points out that the Samsung refrigerators violated the Energy Star criteria. Why hasn’t DOE taken any action against Samsung?

Thanks again for the series on the Sins of Green Washing.

PS:

Reply

Learned the Hardway May 10, 2009 at 10:51 pm

PS: Check out the http://www.lgfridgefury.org website. That guy is even more upset by LG’s fraud than I am.

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