You give “green” a bad name

Update: I saw a news report last night saying that Canada’s fur industry is now branding itself as natural, green and eco-friendly compared to synthetic furs. Ridiculous!

It’s not like we never expected this would happen, but it’s a sad reality that many companies looking to jump on the “green” bandwagon are doing so in a deceptive fashion, going so far as to lie to customers about the eco-friendliness of their products. It’s far too easy to spot in the TV ads — SUVs driving on old-growth forest trails alongside deer and other wild animals; so-called organic shampoo made from natural ingredients (whatever that means); and major events (sports, awards, entertainment, etc.) claiming to be carbon offset just so everybody driving back home in their Porches and Hummers don’t feel guilty about screwing the planet. I always love the commercials from oil companies trying to emphasize their green initiatives, which are a tiny sliver of their overall spending (and, of course, you always see a token windmill in the background whenever an executive is speaking). Ugh.

A new study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing sheds some light on this phenomenon called “greenwashing.” TerraChoice surveyed 1,018 consumer products — everything from toothpaste to caulking to printers — and found rampant greenwashing. How rampant? Of 1,753 green claims 99 per cent were bogus to some degree, committing one of what TerraChoice calls the Six Sins of Greenwashing.

The sins are:

1. Bad tradeoffs. In other words, you can claim something is green in one way — i.e. more energy efficient — but you neglect to mention that achieving this creates an offsetting sacrifice somewhere else, such as increased toxic materials. TerraChoice found that 57 per cent of products committed this sin.

2. Zero proof. A claim of being “green” is not backed up with any kind of proof or certification to verify it. It was found that 26 per cent of products committed this sin.

3. Vagueness. Emphasizing one characteristic of a product that makes it appear green — i.e. it’s all-natural — but neglecting to point out that it’s still not good for the environment. It was found that 11 per cent committed this sin.

4. Irrelevance. A product claiming to be green when this aspect of the product does not distinguish it in the marketplace. For example, biodegradable coffee filters. This was seen in 4 per cent of products.

5. Flat out lying. I think this speaks for itself, but an example would be a company claiming to be certified organic or rated Energy Star when in fact it’s not. Fortunately less than 1 per cent committed this sin.

6. Lesser than two evils. That is, “evil” products like cigarettes, leaf blowers, Hummers, and bottled water that are given a green tweak to justify green marketing campaigns — i.e. organic cigarettes, electric leafblowers, hybrid Hummers and biodegradable plastic bottles.

I want to make clear that I see no problem with companies marketing their green activities to win votes from the buying public, as long as those companies are actually doing what they’re saying. Wal-Mart is, from what I can tell, really doing what it’s saying. Is General Electric? I believe it is to some degree, but when the company talks about its green product portfolio it’s not like it suddenly created green products. It basically did an inventory of what it has and decided it could get away with branding certain products green. I’m seeing this increasingly in cleantech marketing. Press release from companies that haven’t change their product at all but, because it incidentally improves efficiencies in some applications, gets promoted as clean tech.

It’s certainly making my job tougher. More press releases, more pitches, more information overload to filter through as I try to get a sense of what’s real, what’s just marketing, and what’s likely to have a measurable impact.

Perhaps it’s one of those good problems to have. But I have one warning to companies thinking about committing a greenwashing sin: watch out. It just might come back and bite you in the ass.