TerraChoice study reveals "Six Sins of Greenwashing"
Both buyers and marketers of so-called "green" products are being cautioned about misleading claims concerning the environmental soundness of these products by no less an authority than TerraChoice, the official management, certification and delivery agent for Canada's EcoLogo program.
Neither side stands to benefit from is stretching the eco-truth, says TerraChoice in its Six Sins of Greenwashing study. Green marketers and consumers are learning about the pitfalls of greenwashing together, and this represents a shared problem and a joint opportunity, it says.
TerraChoice surveyed 1,018 randomly selected, common consumer products that made environmental claims. These ranged from toothpaste to caulking to shampoo to printers. All but one were found to have made claims that were demonstrably false or risked misleading intended audiences. The environmental shortcomings were so prevalent that TerraChoice separated them into six categories, dubbed the "Six Sins of Greenwashing."
"The products we surveyed made a total of 1,753 claims, and 99% per cent committed at least one of the Six Sins of Greenwashing," said TerraChoice president Scott McDougall.
The pervasiveness of this greenwashing has serious implications for companies and the public alike, says TerraChoice. Competitive pressure from illegitimate environmental claims takes market share away from products that do offer genuine benefits, thus slowing the penetration of real environmental innovation into the marketplace, says the report.
Besides misleading well-intentioned consumers, greenwashing can generate cynicism and doubt among the public about all environmental claims, leading consumers to give up on manufacturers and marketers of legitimate green products and direct their spending away from them. This, says TerraChoice, would eliminate a significant, market-based financial incentive for green product innovation.
The study lists the Six Sins of Greenwashing (in order of dominance) as follows.
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off, e.g. "energy-efficient" electronics that contain hazardous materials. This was the most common sin, found in 998 products and representing 57% of all environmental claims. The hidden trade-off was also found among products such as ink cartridges, laundry detergents, bathroom and multi-purpose cleaners, wood panels and pesticides.
2. Sin of No Proof, e.g. shampoos (and other personal care products) claiming to be "certified organic," but with no verifiable certification. This was the second-ranked sin, found among 454 products and representing 26% of environmental claims. The study determined "no proof" to mean that evidence supporting the environmental claim could not be found at the point of purchase or the product manufacturer's Web site.
3. Sin of Vagueness, e.g. products claiming to be 100% natural when many naturally-occurring substances are hazardous, like arsenic and formaldehyde. Other phrases in this category included "chemical-free" (nothing is free of chemicals, even water is a chemical); "non-toxic" (everything is toxic in high enough doses); and "green," "environmentally friendly," and "eco-conscious," which are meaningless. This sin was seen in 196 products, making up 11% of environmental claims.
4. Sin of Irrelevance, e.g. products claiming to be CFC-free, as if this were a competitive advantage, even though CFCs were banned nearly 30 years ago and no products are manufactured with this compound. This sin was seen in 78 products, accounting for 4% of environmental claims.
5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, in which environmental claims are placed on products that are overall of dubious environmental value. Examples include "organic" cigarettes or a "hybrid" (but inefficient) SUV. This was one of the two least common sins, occurring in 17 products and making up 1% of environmental claims.
6. Sin of Fibbing, e.g. products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard such as EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. This occurred in ten products and made up less than 1% of environmental claims.
There is no such thing as a perfect "green" product, says TerraChoice. Environmentally preferable products are "greener," not "green" and marketing them as such is fair. Moreover, adds the study report, environmental progress is incremental, and this stepwise progress toward environmentally improved products should be encouraged. Avoiding greenwashing does not require waiting for a perfect product. It does mean that sound science, honesty and transparency are paramount.
The study offers consumers advice on avoiding products that commit the six greenwashing sins, along with recommendations to help companies avoid committing any of the sins and make the most of green marketing opportunities. Addressing the problem together, says TerraChoice, will increase trust in environmentally preferable products and help them penetrate the market faster and more deeply. This will benefit business, consumers and the environment.
Established in 1988, Environment Canada's EcoLogo program has been accredited by the Global Ecolabelling Network, an international association of ecolabelling programs, as meeting the ISO 14024 environmental marketing standard. EcoLogo provides a market incentive to manufacturers and suppliers of environmentally preferable products and services in more than 120 product categories. More than 7,000 products are currently EcoLogo-certified. TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has been the official certification agent for the EcoLogo program since 1995, helping companies navigate every stage of the certification process. In the final stages, applicants are visited by a third-party auditor who conducts a final verification audit.