Is A Greener Product Green Enough? Our Greenwashing Series Wrap-Up

by Owner on June 17, 2009

For the last seven weeks or so we’ve discussed the seven different ways, identified by Terrachoice, in which product marketers try to convince the public that their products are green. It’s called greenwashing, and is inevitable in a world that is becoming increasingly environmentally aware. More and more people are no longer content to just buying things without regard to how the manufacture or use of the product harm the environment.

To recap, Terrachoice identified seven major ways in which companies try to fool you:

  • The hidden trade-off, where a product claims to be green by focusing on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes while ignoring other important environmental issues. An example is paper that comes from a sustainably harvested forust but doesn’t account for the energy use and emissions associated with manufacturing it.
  • No proof, where a product makes a claim without proving it. For example, a light bulb that says it’s energy efficient without offering evidence or certification commits this sin.
  • Vagueness, where meaningless terms or symbols are used to convince a customer a product is green. Examples include the use of words like “green,” “all natural,” or “environmentally friendly,” all of which are meaningless by themselves.
  • Irrelevance, where terms not relevant to being environmentally friendly are used. The example cited was “CFC free,” when in fact all products manufactured now are CFC free.
  • Lesser of two evils, where a product is green in one way but commits harm in another. One example is a “green” pesticide, which may not pollute but also kills everything it touches.
  • Fibbing, where a product simply lies about being green. An example was a so-called certified organic shampoo when no evidence existed of that certification.
  • Worshiping false labels, where product makers create the impression through words or images that some kind of green certification has been given, when no such certification exists. One example was a paper towel proclaiming “this product fights global warming.”

So now that we know the different kinds of greenwashing, what do we do in order to seek out truly green products?

The absolute #1 thing you can do is look for a meaningful third-party certification. “Meaningful” means that the eco label is independent of any company; its standards are developed transparently and are available for public review and comment; and it has third-party verification. Labels I have previously mentioned are Green Seal, GreenGuard, EcoLogo, WaterSense, Cradle to Cradle, and USDA Organic. Energy Star has issues, but is still the best measurement for energy efficiency available in the US. There are other good eco labels out there, which I’ll talk about in future articles, but these are the main ones to remember.

Buying products with one of these endorsements guarantees that you are using the most environmentally friendly products possible.

Does this mean that products without eco labels aren’t green or shouldn’t be used?

NO! Environmentalism is a growing movement, and sense is still being made out of a lot of chaos. There are many products out there that are genuinely greener and better for the environment, but don’t carry an eco label.

One example is the Seventh Generation line of household products. I genuinely believe that these are good products and that the company really tries to make them eco friendly. They’re very transparent about the ingredients they use. However, they don’t carry an eco label. When asked why Seventh Generation doesn’t carry the Green Seal in particular, the response they give is:

“No, we are not Green Seal certified.  Because Green Seal is not widely accepted, we decided that the cost of certification was not justified to pursue at this time.”

That’s important, because it shows that consumer demand is key to pushing for environmental standards. The more people who demand accountability and third-party eco friendly verification in the products they use, the more incentive companies like Seventh Generation will have to seek out certification.

It’s ok to buy products without meaningful eco labels but which offer transparency and information about what they contain, so long as you’re aware that what you’re getting is GREENER, and not necessarily GREEN. It also really helps if you contact product manufacturers and let them know you demand that they seek out legitimate eco labeling.

The wrong thing to do is look at the challenges associated with green shopping and just give up. It’s absolutely vital that we maintain demand for green and greener products, because that will inevitably lead to more consistent and significant eco labeling.

Eighth and last 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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