How To Avoid Greenwashing Sin #3: Vagueness

by Joe on May 8, 2009

It’s time to take a look at Terrachoice’s Third Sin of Greenwashing: Vagueness. Terrachoice found that 11% of the products it evaluated were guilty of vagueness in its green claims. (Articles about the first two sins can be found at the end of this post.)

Let’s start our discussion of this third sin of vagueness with a picture:

recycling mobius loop recycle symbolWhat does this symbol mean? It’s the recycling “mobius loop,” and is generally understood to mean that a product is made from recycled material. But does the symbol mean that 100% of the product is made of this recycled material? Could it mean that only 50% of the product is made of recycled materials? 10%? 0.01%? Also, what kind of recycled material is included: is it post-consumer waste or post-industrial waste? Nobody knows the answers unless the packaging explicitly says so. Just slapping this symbol on a product without further explanation is a disservice to the consumer, who has no idea what percentage of the product is actually made from recycled material or where that material comes from.

By the way, did you know that the symbol above is different from this one?

moeb2This second symbol without the background means that the product is recyclable, versus being made from recycled materials. The different meaning between these symbols was news to me until I researched this article. Talk about vague and confusing!

The sin of vagueness gets worse. I bet you’ve seen these terms on products: “Chemical-free.” “Non-toxic.” “All natural.” Even “Green,” “Environmentally friendly,” and “Eco-Conscious.” Have you stopped to think about what these actually mean?

Nothing is free of chemicals, since water, plants, animals, humans, and everything on the planet is made up of chemicals. Everything is toxic at sufficiently high levels–including water and oxygen. Arsenic and formaldehyde are “all natural.” And what does “green” even mean without a more specific explanation?

This sin is painful. We’ve seen these vague claims on all kinds of products and may have fallen for them ourselves at one time or another. Terrachoice found them on everything from “chemical free” insecticides to “natural” hair mousse to wax paper with unquantified “recycled content.”

What can we do to protect ourselves against the sin of vagueness when we shop? Here are some ideas:

  • Look for “here’s what we mean by… (eco-, green, all natural, whatever.)” If the meaning of the term isn’t self-evident, is there something on the product packaging or the company’s website that explains what is meant? If not, then draw no conclusions about the term because it could mean anything and is therefore meaningless.
  • Beware of the popular “buzz words.” “Non-toxic,” “all natural”, “environmentally friendly,” “earth friendly,” “eco friendly” and “green” are very over-used without any explanation. Treat these words with suspicion unless/until they are better explained by the product manufacturer. The product may in fact be what it claims, but you deserve a more specific explanation to understand what you’re buying.
  • Look for meaningful green certification. The best way to fight vagueness (and greenwashing in general) is to subject green claims to the withering scrutiny of objective third-party certification that demands specific documentation. The Greener Choices website is an excellent resource for learning about the best eco labels to look for. Some eco labels are more meaningful than others, so check Greener Choices if you have any doubts.

Bottom line is, ask yourself if a green claim could be subject to multiple interpretations thanks to lack of a more specific explanation. If so, then buyer beware.

Third 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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