The Truth About Greenwashing
Some companies’ claims of being eco-friendly in their products and practices are valid; for others, it’s “greenwashing,” a deceptive marketing ploy.
By Brian Bossetta
Whether it’s due to socially minded Millennials entering the marketplace, widespread concerns about climate change or the Information Age making consumers more aware about the world around them, more and more shoppers these days want the products they buy to be “green.” And companies are responding — or at least they are claiming to.
But with an abundance of products affirming to be “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” or “ethically sourced,” how can consumers be sure such labels are true? In other words, how can they be sure they are not just being “greenwashed?”
The environmental equivalent to whitewashing — the practice of covering up unpleasant facts, especially in a political context — greenwashing is a marketing technique companies use to attract socially minded consumers concerned about the environment. In some cases, greenwashing is an attempt by a company to promote and focus attention on its green programs in order to deflect attention away from its less environmentally friendly activities.
Or, as Claudette Juska, a research specialist with the global environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace, puts it, greenwashing is any form of advertising by a company that implies what they are selling has been manufactured or sourced by processes not harmful to the ecosystem. “Sometimes those claims are deliberate, sometimes not,” Juska says.
Greenwashing, Juska explains, is when companies place generic labels, such as “natural” or “green” on their products or use depictions of nature on their packaging, sometimes to indicate their environmental commitment but sometimes to mislead consumers. “These images convey the perception that the products are friendly to the environment,” Juska says.
Jamie Kneen, communications coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, a mining watchdog and environmental activist group in Ottawa, Ontario, gives the example of the diamond brands Polar Bear and Maple Leaf as a type of greenwashing. “The images of polar bears and maple leafs are used to communicate to the customers that those diamonds are not harmful to the environment,” Kneen says. “They don’t show pictures of huge open mining pits, which would be far less appealing. That’s a bit of a marketing cover-up.”
Perhaps a more noticeable example of greenwashing in the jewelry industry is Walmart’s Love, Earth® jewelry line, a collection Walmart claims to be traceable, transparent and sustainably sourced. “Kudos to Walmart, a large-scale retailer, in isolating a particular mine and making it traceable,” says Christina Miller, co-founder and director of Ohio-based Ethical Metalsmiths, an advocacy group for ethical and responsible mining practices. “But to call it Love, Earth is a greenwash lie.”
That’s because, Miller goes on to say, the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, which produces the gold and silver for the Love, Earth collection, is a major contributor to pollution in the watershed that feeds into the Salt Lake region. “The mining there has eaten away several peaks and has left a lot of waste,” Miller says. “So the terminology is incredibly false. It leaves consumers with the wrong impression.”
One of the first industries in which greenwashing surfaced, according to Scot Case, director of market development at UL Environment, a global independent safety science company, was household cleaning products. “Early on, people started to care about the health ramifications, both for themselves and the planet, from the chemicals in the cleaning products they were using,” Case says. And so, the need for companies to identify themselves as “green” became a marketing imperative.
In Miller’s view, however, the jewelry industry will never be totally green. “There’s always going to be some impact. There’s no way of getting around it,” Miller says. “I wish the industry wouldn’t use words like ‘eco-friendly.’ It gives the wrong connotation.”
Other methods of greenwashing, according to Juska, include diversionary tactics by a company to make it appear environmentally friendly when it is not. One instance would be when a company whose core business is “dirty” — oil, waste or mining — promotes green initiatives that account for only a small sliver of that company’s activities. “The vast majority of Exxon’s business is oil,” Juska says, citing such an example. The company spends most of its advertising budget “on ads about company efforts to turn algae into fuel, but that’s only a fraction of what they do.” Those environmentally friendly programs, in fact, receive far less financial support than the company’s more profitable, dominant programs.
Some mining corporations greenwash, according to Miller, through “token gestures” — like sponsoring a baseball team. “That’s not social responsibility,” Miller says, adding she’d rather see more meaningful investments, such as cleaning up old mines that are Superfund sites — abandoned areas deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contain hazardous waste. The costs to decontaminate such sites, Miller says, fall on the EPA — and ultimately taxpayers — because the mining companies didn’t budget for future cleanup. “I think the reason so many consumers are skeptical of corporate responsibility claims is because the programs are often more placating than genuinely useful,” Miller says.
Greenwashing also occurs, according to Kneen, when consumers are not informed as to the tangential effects of a given industry, such as diamond mining. “When the Ekati diamond mine opened in the Northwest Territories, overall energy consumption in the territories went up by a third,” he says.
Case helped to develop the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” to aid consumers in distinguishing between accurate and misleading eco claims. The“sin of vagueness” covers poorly defined and broad claims that are impossible to authenticate. “My favorite is ‘Mother Earth Approved,’” Case says. “What does that mean?”
The others are the sins of “no proof” — claims that can’t be easily substantiated; “lesser of two evils” — claims that might be true but distract the consumer from the greater environmental impact, such as “organic cigarettes” or “fuel-efficient SUVs”; “fibbing” — environmental claims that are simply false; “irrelevance” — claims unimportant or unhelpful to consumers, “hidden trade-off” — narrowly based claims that ignore larger issues and “false labels” that imply third-party endorsement.
Along with the ability to recognize the “Seven Sins” in advertising, both Case and Juska say consumers have another tool in their efforts to buy green — the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “Green Guides,” first authored in 1992 and updated most recently in 2012. These new guidelines, in Juska’s view, make it clearer to companies wishing to market themselves as green what they may and may not state. They “encourage companies to refrain from using broad and ambiguous assertions like ‘natural’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ in their advertising,” Juska says.
In the end, whether mandated by regulation or driven by consumer demand, for corporations to see green in their coffers, they are going to have to have green in their products and services. Green, Case says, is the wave of the future and the corporations know it. “There’s a greater understanding of a basic principle that every single purchase has hidden human health, environmental and social impacts,” he says. “So you have greater understanding from consumers, higher expectations and instant communication. That’s a wonderful sustainable trifecta that is drastically altering what companies need to do to remain profitable.”
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2014. To subscribe click here.