Well, what does it mean? 

It is the process by which a company gives you, the consumer, the impression that a product or service has had its environmental impact taken into consideration. I say “impression” because the Green-Washing label only applies if those claims made do not match what the consumer. In essence, a consumer may be choosing a product because they believe, in doing so, they are making an environmentally wise choice, over something else, but ultimately their choice is misinformed and their actions will not have the effect they hope. Some people would call this dishonest. I’m one of them… It should be pointed out though that in some cases the perpetrators make claims in good faith, honestly thinking that their initiative will have a positive environmental impact, when in fact it does not. This is, however, no excuse for not actually checking to be sure that what is said and what is are actually the same.

And why does it happen?  

No prizes for guessing. Money. The green-movement is gathering pace and better late than never (at least let’s hope so), meaning companies have not taken long to recognise this potential market. If done cleverly, although not always subtly, you can tap into that social conscience that has people willingly pay more for a product if they think it is doing some good.

As tempting as it may be, I’m not going to point the finger for the next thousand words but, instead, I will try to share the typical ways in which green-washing takes place and how you might best spot it, thus not falling victim of the subterfuge. Given what is at stake for us and our descendants it seems apt that the main methods for green-washing have been dramatically called the Seven Sins of Green-Washing. This list arose from Terra Choice, a marketing company dealing in environmental business, that published a report whose findings stated that 95% of all consumer products billed as having a “green” benefit exhibited at least one of the Seven.

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Seven Sins of Green-Washing

The first Sin is the Hidden Trade Off, as it is called. This is where a product says it is green because of “x”, but fails to disclose how production of the said item also results in “a”, “b” and “c” which are more harmful to the environment than whatever gains “x” might offer.  Let’s take an electronic reader as an example. An e-reader company might say their product is environmentally friendly as it negates the need for wood pulp which would otherwise mean cutting down trees. In saying that, they do not mention the carbon cost of the plastics, polymers and the human costs of Coltan in the circuitry for example, which might end up having a greater carbon foot-print than the paper books the e-reader replaces. This carbon cost would be the hidden trade off. Now, as it happens, the little material I’ve read on the subject suggests that e-readers genuinely do protect the environment if you consider that some models can store books in the thousands. A more accurate example might be the use of paper carrier bags in grocery shops. The option of the paper bag might entice the shopper to buy in that store and pay the higher premium for that carrier bag and doing “their bit” whilst in fact, as discussed in an earlier LDIW article on carrier bags, paper bags are not the greenest option. Not even close.

The next is that of a Lack of Proof. For this situation let us take the example of a domestic air-conditioning unit. The manufacturer proudly and loudly states that their unit uses 45% less electricity than the nearest competitor in category. Great, isn’t it? Oh, but wait!  No matter where I look I can’t find any hint of how that stated fact was calculated. Which competitor, which conditions, over which period of time and so on. Zip. Nada. Not on the company’s website, nor on any third party’s. It might be true, but then it might not. Who’s to know? You’d be going on blind trust and this is something best kept between friends…

Although similar in result, the following Sin is that of Vagueness. There are nice noncommittal ramblings from the brand in question of how their “dedication to the world around them drives them to achieve ever greater levels of environmental responsibility by working towards reducing the harm done to the natural world for their customers and their children.” Heart-warming, I think you’ll agree: reading it, you can almost hear the birds sing. But really, do we know what they are doing? No. Can we even say they are doing anything? No. It’s as helpful and informative as an automated message telling you your call is important for the 50th time.

Following that we have the Worship of False Labels. In some industries and fields it is possible to use some emblem on your product and that emblem carries with it some intrinsic value that may make the product more appealing. Let us use one example, albeit a somewhat false equivalent. There are products sold in the UK that carry the Coat of Arms of the British Royal family with the words “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”. So, naturally, this gives the impression that the Queen is a fond consumer of that product, but that may not actually be. In fact the company needs only to have supplied the Royal Household for some years. Granted, that is surely a positive endorsement, but it is no guarantee that the Queen has ever used it. Now imagine that a product bears the logo of a well-known environmental organisation or charity. Would it not be fair to assume that this organisation or charity therefore supports the product? Yes, it would, but alas there are some companies that may have slapped on a WWF panda or some such symbol that screams “we’re green!!” but without any basis, backing or endorsement other than somehow they’ve slapped on a logo.

We then come to the Sin of Irrelevance. A product tells you something that may well sound good and, indeed, be good, but the fact that they have done it is of no importance because, for example, it’s the law and everyone has to do it whether they cover their packaging with the fact or not.  The case in point I’ve seen frequently used to illustrate this is the pressurised aerosol smugly telling any who care to read that they are CFC-free. Well, CFC’s have been forbidden in aerosols (to name but one of many) ever since they discovered the hole in the Ozone layer had been caused by them, so it is hardly a trend-setting practice.

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What next? Well, I’m sure you’ve seen them. The image of a shiny, unsullied automobile making leisurely use of its 4-wheel drive traction as it navigates a flowery meadow at the foot of some mountains. Below it some text telling you that with this luxury grade car you can enjoy life’s adventures beyond the Shopping Centre, guilt-free because the car uses a hybrid engine, cutting consumption by 30%. This is the Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils.  The buyer is wooed by such impressive figures until you read the small print where we hear that the 30% reduction still only yields 7.5 litres to the 100 km

because you’d be buying a 4 litre turbo and the car weighs 2 metric tons. The fact is, if we stop and think about it, we know that big, luxury off-roaders are not economical in the slightest and getting one to consume 30% less than before, whilst an impressive cut, will still leave you with a very thirsty car, only that is could have been worse. But those beautiful stats might just convince us that we can justify a behemoth on wheels!

The final Sin is that of simply lying through one’s teeth about what the product is, isn’t, does or doesn’t do in terms of environmental consequences. “Use our lawn-mower and the air is actually cleaner out of the exhaust than when it went in!” Oh, please….really?

Further to those listed above, in 2008, Ed Gillespie was able to add a further 3 points to the list of mechanisms for pulling the wool over the buying public’s collective eyes. These include such activities as using lots of imagery or product names that carry nature-loving or clean for Mother-Earth undertones. There might be claims that just don’t cut the mustard and finally there is simply good old-fashioned jargon and science-speak to befuddle the reader and make them think that this new compound “Hydric acid” in their cleaning spray is somehow better than water.

So how do you spot and avoid them?  

Well, the truth is it can be tough. After all, marketeers do this for a living, whilst their marketing departments and advertising firms have all sorts of other people who are very good at giving the intended message in very subtle ways. However, we the consumers are not defenceless sheep. If there is a product that you will probably buy again and again, such as a washing powder or toilet roll, etc. then by all means shortlist the products that you think have potential, but then research their credentials. If the packaging makes claims, do a search online. Can you get any verification of them, particularly through third party sources? If not, you may want to reconsider. If you’re about to make a spontaneous purchase because of pastel-green packaging and some reference to recycling, then read the small print. If there is nothing about recycled materials being used or it turns out to be some pitiful percentage of the outer packet, walk away. If all else fails, trust your gut. If what you read seems unrealistic to you, then there’s a good chance it is, in the same way you get the feeling that someone interacting with you has ulterior motives for the exchange. Walk away.

The good news is that many responsible countries’ governments and consumer protection agencies are getting more and more wise to these practices and are taking steps to apply legislation for minimum standards and then penalties when they are broken; but until the practice is wiped out there are a number of unfortunate consequences. Consumers will continue to be duped out of their money for something that does not deliver on promises made, companies that are trying to genuinely improve their environmental practices are either unjustly tarred with the same brush or just lost in the “noise” of a crowded market, and last and certainly not least, our environmental challenges will continue to come second to the main goal of profit and gain. So when you next shop, stop and check to be sure your “green” is clean.

By Nicholas Marsh