What is greenwashing?

It’s no surprise that “green” products sell; customers demand them and businesses are racing to see who will be first to develop the latest and sexiest “green” product on the market. Unfortunately, the result of this sudden boom in the demand for all things “green” is a phenomenon taking place within the retail, industrial, foodservice and hospitality sectors known as greenwashing.

According to stopgreenwash.org greenwashing is used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environment practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. While this may seem like primarily a concern for consumers and not business operators, greenwashing can actually have serious repercussions on the success of your sustainable efforts.

In order to keep an eye on the presence of greenwashing, watchdog groups like The Green Life Online (formerly Earth Day Resources for Living Green) began publishing resources for both consumers and business operators, including lists of the worst greenwashers in the marketplace. High on the list of the top ten worst greenwashers in America, you’ll find companies like Exxon Mobil, American for Balanced Energy Choices, Clairol, Tyson Chicken, and Kraft’s Post Selects Cereals – examples of how good intentions can lead to bad business.

How greenwashing can impact your business

If you’re in the process of “greening” your business, take note; consumers do not like to be taken advantage of and the environment could really go without throngs of people investing in products that say one thing and do another (take, for example, a personal care product that isn’t tested on animals but requires five times more energy to manufacture than other brands). If angered customers and a negative impact on the environment aren’t reasons enough to question the existence of greenwashing in your business, keep reading.

According to greenwashingindex.com, smart businesses are quickly learning that adopting sustainable practices will increase profitability. Unfortunately for every business investing significant amounts of time, money and resources into the production of valid sustainable policies and products, there are some that, through clever marketing schemes, compromise the reputation of “green” brands and practices everywhere. In the end, misleading customers, stakeholders, suppliers, or customers by advertising “green” practices, policies and products creates cynicism about all environmental claims and dilutes the quality of products that appear on shelves. This in turn can tarnish the reputation of every business trying to go “green”, which in the end will have an impact on sales throughout the industry.

The six sins of greenwashing

While it’s easy to be critical about greenwashing, it’s not always easy to recognize when it’s happening at your business. After taking a look at nearly 1,018 consumer products bearing  1,753 environmental claims, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc, a sustainability and marketing consultancy, discovered that all but one of the products studied made claims that were demonstrably false or risked misleading intended audience.

While some company’s may be purposefully misleading consumers, many simply don’t understand the repercussions of not doing their due diligence when it comes sustainability and what it really takes to be considered “green”. In order to help business owners understand and recognize when greenwashing may be taking place, TerraChoice put together a document entitled “The Six Sins of Greenwashing”. Evade these sins so that you, and your business, can avoid falling into the greenwashing trap:

The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: Suggesting a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute (like the recycled content of paper) or an unreasonably narrow set of characteristics (recycled content and chlorine free bleaching) without paying attention to other important environmental issues (energy, water, forestry impacts).

Sin of No Proof: Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification.

The Sin of Vagueness: Every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer.

Sin of Irrelevance: Making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. It is irrelevant and therefore distracts the consumer from finding a truly greener option.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: “Green” claims that may be true within the product category,  but that risk distracting the consumer from the  greater environmental impacts of the category as a  whole. Examples include organic cigarettes and “green” insecticides and herbicides.

Sin of Fibbing: Making environmental claims that are simply false.

Questions or comments about greenwashing? Leave them below!

image credit: bcfp