How to Spot Greenwashing, Be Smart Green Shoppers

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘greenwashing’ as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities”. In other words, laying on some ‘green sheen’ or green PR marketing to deceptively convey the perception that an organization is environmentally friendly when they’re not. Yes, people do this! Ugh.

We like to think we’re protecting our family’s health and the environment by buying eco-friendly products. However, a second look at some “green” products frequently reveals anything but. As corporations rush to cash in with new product lines touting natural living products, too many of the changes are more cosmetic (new packaging, appealing earthy logos) than chemical; sometimes toxicity levels decrease in only minimal amounts. With green marketing campaign in overdrive, how can we be sure that we truly are selecting a certified safe product?

Greedily Seizing Upon the Green

Greenwashing is the practice of spending more money advertising and labeling products or services with green characteristics than actually making them environmentally sound. Companies commonly deceive by misusing terms like natural, non-toxic and eco-safe.

Although greenwashing has been around for nearly a quarter century (the term first technically added to the dictionary in 1989), corporations today are committing to it at unprecedented levels as they go after the growing market for eco-friendly products. The average Jane now wants to protect the environment, is willing to pay a premium to help, and companies have duly noted this. When products and services are really green, everyone wins; but when they are suspect, everyone suffers from a false sense of stewardship.

Irresponsible companies hijacking green is aptly characterized by Jay Westerveld’s initial 1986 report on greenwashing, first used to describe the reuse of towels in the hotel industry. His research implied that in-room signage stating that, “Reusing the hotel towels helps save the environment,” was more a ploy to increase reservations from patrons concerned about their environmental footprints than an actual credo of hotel management. Hotels asserted high-minded environmental responsibility based on laundry alone, without any other resource conservation, recycling, or waste reduction.

Bottled Water Example

The bottled water industry is a more recent example. Amid mounting negative publicity about their unsustainable practices, these companies aggressively overhauled label designs and switched to thinner plastic bottles. Yes, the new form is less wasteful, but drinking bottled water remains among the most environmentally unfriendly habits. Plus, drinking from plastic, made with petrochemicals, is unhealthy, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Gratefully, the tide is turning in many companies with integrity. For example, in the 20 years since Westerveld’s report, more hotels are starting to introduce genuine environmental reforms. But so much more progress is needed across the board in business that the true pioneers stand out. And given the evolving creativity of greenwashing tactics, it can be more difficult to pick authentic eco-alterations from fraud. Buyer beware.

Telling Real Green Products From Fake Greenwashing

Here are some telltale signs of greenwashing.

  • Fluffy or ambiguous language. Beware of terms such as all natural, true organic experience or free of [insert scary chemical name]. These terms are not government regulated, and mean nothing. Even the organic moniker has multiple definitions that are meaningless unless a product is certified organic by a respected institution that issues objective standards.
  • Partial or nonexistent list of ingredients. The entire list should be on the label for 100 percent transparency.
  • Unverified health claims. Many companies lie or outright fabricate claims or data. Demand to see supporting scientific studies.
  • A questionable parent company. If a maker is owned by a company notorious for toxic outputs, look again. Chances are, the product’s formula has undergone only minimal changes from the original, non-green version. There are exceptions to this rule – just be aware.

The Greenwashing Index

Consumers are not powerless. “Our research shows that while some consumers blindly trust green product claims, a growing number are doing research on product labels or going online,” says Kevin Tuerff, president of EnvironMedia and co-founder of the Greenwashing Index. “Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is way behind in issuing new rules on green marketing that would protect consumers and help our environment.” Greenwashingindex.com was launched in 2007 to help shoppers know how to identify vague or misleading claims and when they can be confident of product authenticity.

Sourced, in part, from Natural Awakenings Magazine

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