Environmental Ponderings – No 2: The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

As an environmental auditor, I have been privileged over the years to see both sides of the proverbial environmental coin: that is, what the industrialists perceive as environmentally friendly products and what the consumer expects as “eco-friendly/environmentally friendly” products. As you might imagine, the two perceptions are often poles apart and at times, incomparable. As an environmental practitioner, I am still after 30 years grappling with what I understand as “environmentally friendly” but I’ll leave that discussion for another column…

The subject of this pondering is something quite close to my heart: greenwashing. For those of you not familiar with the term, it is defined as. “..the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the benefits of a product or service…”

An American marketing company specialising in “green” marketing called Terrachoice first took up the cudgels of greenwash back in 2007 and produced “the Six Sins of Greenwash” for free distribution. (There are now seven sins….must be something to do with inflation…) The booklet initially evoked quite a response with industrialists claiming that they were being maligned and green consumers crying, “we told you so!”

One can go into much detail about the “whys and wherefore’s” but, in essence, the message coming from the whole exercise is simple: don’t believe “environmental friendly claims” blindly and be prepared to ask direct and persistent questions of those who would have you believe they are, “environmental friendly”.

The seven sins of greenwashing are as follows:-

  1. The Sin of Hidden tradeoffs

This is where a product is put forward as “green” , based upon a narrow set of attributes which leave out other important environmental factors. For example, although paper may be produced from a sustainably harvested forest, there are still other environmental issues such as energy, greenhouse gas emissions and water and air pollution that need to be considered.

  • Sin of No Proof

This is where an environmental claim is made but it is difficult to obtain evidence to substantiate the specific claim. For example, claiming various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without supporting this with third party certification or accessible evidence to support the claim.

  • Sin of Vagueness

This occurs where the claim made is so vague that it defies sensible understanding by even the most intelligent of green consumers. For example, uranium, mercury and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring but that does not necessarily make them “green” products.

  • Sin of Irrelevance

This occurs when making an environmental claim that maybe truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful in the wider picture. An example here might be claiming a product as “CFC-free” when that particular CFC is banned by law.

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

This would be where the claims may be true within the product category but not from the greater environmental perspective, for example, an organic cigarette or a fuel efficient sport utility vehicle.

  • Sin of Fibbing

This is straight forward. An environmental claim is made by a manufacturer or service provider that is false and untrue.

  • Sin of Worshipping False Labels

This is the case where a product, through images or words, gives the impression of some form of certification or third party endorsement where this does not exist.

“The Sins of Greenwash : Home and Family Edition – 2010” can be freely downloaded from the  Terrachoice site at www.terrachoice.com  where you can find our more detail and more examples.

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 30 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

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