Marketing greenwashing - a GLOBE-Net editorial



Last week the Ottawa-based environmental marketing firm TerraChoice released its 2010 Survey of consumer product advertising entitled The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition.

In an accompanying press release it noted that 95% of consumer products surveyed involved some form of 'greenwashing', which it defines as 'the act of misleading consumers about the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.'

The press release further notes that greenwashing has declined slightly since 2009, with 4.5 per cent of products now 'sin-free', compared to only 2 per cent in 2009 and reports that 'the proportion of 'sin-free' products is five times greater in 'mature' categories like building, construction and office products than in 'immature' categories like toys and baby products.'

The survey's findings were quickly picked up by the general media and many consumer groups were equally quick to decry the apparently wide-spread practices of sin-full companies seeking to cash in on the growing environmentally awareness of consumers.

TerraChoice must be commended for identifying product suppliers that make blatantly false claims about the environmental attributes of their products, or that purposefully falsify potentially dangerous attributes thereof.

However, one might question the real benefits of such broad brush pronouncements that suggest 95 percent of certain classes of consumer products fail to meet their stated environmental standards and therefore cannot be trusted.

Not only do they weaken consumer confidence in what efforts are being made by environmentally conscious companies to become more sustainable in their product offerings and business practices, they reinforce a notion that businesses cannot be trusted in what they say or do.

For example, the report notes that BPA and phthalate-related claims are skyrocketing and that more than any other single claim observed, 'BPA-free' and 'phthalate-free' (and variations on the theme) had become more frequent in the past year. From the report - 'The percentage of products making BPA free claims increased by 577%, and those making phthalate-free claims increased by 2,550%!'

On this one issue the report states 'It's not good enough that you are confident that your product is free of BPA (or phthalates, lead, mercury, PVC and so on). Parents deserve proof. Get the studies, make them available, and build a dialogue of open transparency with your customers. They will reward you for it.'

That same point applies to the TerraChoice survey. It is not readily apparent that these products were subjected to rigorous chemical analysis to determine whether they were or were not free of BPA or phthalates. 

That there was an increase in the number of claims about being BPA free is not a 'sin'. What is sinful is if the advertising claims were scientifically proven to be false. One must presume such testing was conducted, though such is not evident in the report per se.

Being a company in the business of 'eco-labeling,' this oversight by TerraChoice seems odd.

To its credit, in the full report TerraChoice documents the lengths it went to ensure objectivity in rating the environmental claims of the 5,296 products from retail stores in the U.S. and Canada that formed the basis of the survey.

It notes that with the assistance of the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada Inc. (it's new parent company), it used guides published by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Competition Bureau of Canada, and the ISO 14021 standard for environmental labeling.

In the interests of full disclosure one  presume s, the report also notes that the 'Sins of Greenwashing' framework from its previous studies was used to organize the findings and to help researchers to find patterns in the results.

Notwithstanding these points, there is a self serving element in the sweeping revelations that greenwashing abounds. As well, there is the inference in the reported findings that quantifiable standards were being used to rate the offending products, when in fact the whole process of separating the 'sin-full' from the 'sin-free' is by definition very subjective in nature.

Again, despite the fine print in the report about the rigorous procedures employed for product selection and evaluation, and the praise that is metered out for those that have been found worthy, the process could have been improved by having an independent third-party consisting of consumers, product suppliers and professional evaluators not directly involved in the survey to review the findings before they were released to the general public.

In any case, false marketing is not something we should tolerate in any form.

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