Are You Being Greenwashed? The Truth Behind Eco Labels

by Owner on January 7, 2009

istock_000007220591smallEverywhere you turn there are products labeling themselves as “biodegradable,” “environmentally friendly,” and in other ways–all to convince you that you are doing the right thing for the environment if you purchase that product.

While some companies are genuinely trying to do the right thing and are using more eco friendly or sustainable materials, some others are doing what’s called “greenwashing,” a term used to signify “spin” that give consumers the mistaken impression that a product is really green.

One of my favorite websites is Consumer Reports’ Ecolabels Center. It contains a large database allowing you to look up labels such as “biodegradable” to see what they really mean and whether they are meaningful. The database also allows you to pull up a report card summary of all the typical claims for a particular type of product (such as green cleaning products) along with the viability of those claims. It even contains a list of the many certifying agencies out there–what they’re about, what their “certified” labels mean, and more.

As Consumer Reports sees it, the main problem behind many of the green claims and certifications on products can be summed up as “says who?

  • There are often no meaningful, verifiable, and consistent standards to apply for words such as “environmentally friendly” “non toxic,” and “biodegradable”
  • The use of eco labels are often inconsistent and unclear across products.
  • Certifying organizations need to be transparent, free of conflicts of interest, independent, and allow for public comment.

There are some certifying programs of which CR approves because the programs address these issues. For example in the area of green cleaning products, it finds Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems‘ “Certified Biodegradable” label to be highly meaningful certifications of an environmentally friendly product. Both sites have lists of truly green products bearing their seal.

Does this mean that a product not bearing a meaningful certification is by definition not environmentally friendly? Not at all. The company producing the product may not have pursued the certification because it’s too expensive or because they believe that the certification is not widely recognized. The company may also be pursuing a reduction in toxic or non-green materials rather than a complete elimination, perhaps because it’s not possible to build the product otherwise.

I believe there is value in a product even if it falls short of a 100% elimination of non-green, non-natural materials. There is very little on this planet that could be built or made to support our civilization if such a stringent standard were required, at least in the short term absent the development of new technologies. As more and more people demand more sustainable products, the pressure will increase on industry to adopt and apply for consistent and certifiable standards. It will also encourage the development of more sustainable and energy efficient technologies. This is all a good thing.

Clearly the highest priority must be given to those products that already meet objective certifications for sustainability. After that small and elite tier come a much wider array of products where efforts are being made in a transparent, verifiable way to reduce the use of toxic or non-sustainable materials. At the bottom of the heap are greenwashed products that claim to be green without changing anything meaningful about them, and where verification is either impossible or demonstrates the opposite.

The next time you pick up a product claiming to be environmentally friendly, look at its claims with a critical eye. Is it certifiably green, is it making a good effort in that direction, or are you simply being greenwashed?

Want to read more about greenwashing? Take a look at our greenwashing series:

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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