Is greenwashing marketing as usual or a growing concern?
First we need to ensure that we understand what it is.
Merriam Webster defines it as “the act of misleading customers and potential customers into believing that a product or service is environmentally friendly.”
Wikipedia defines it as “‘green sheen’, a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.”
and lastly Oxford Dictionary “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.”
There are many kinds of greenwashing the most obvious are false and misleading claims about an individual product. The most recent example that falls in this category is Goop’s unsupported claim that their Jade and Rose Quartz eggs could balance hormones, regulate uterine prolapse, and incease bladder control. They also claimed that their Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend oil could help prevent depression according to the Orange County, CA District Attorney’s office.
Civil penalties amounting to $145,000 were imposed on Goop as well as being barred from making claims regarding efficacy of their products without complete and reliable evidence. This may seem severe for misrepresentation of a product, however it is appropriate considering the potential for people to delay seeking medical advice for conditions that require it. In this case the issue was more serious as doctors believe the use of the product to have the potential for causing infection or injury.
This disinformation can be defined as greenwashing and was prosecuted due to their very specific claims for improved health without documented evidence to support them.
There are more insidious forms of greenwashing though and they are harder to spot. The Seven Sins of Greenwashing were developed by UL.com, a company that acts as a watchdog for consumers and partners with retailers to provide testing, inspection, auditing, training and advisory services. The seven sins are as follows:
- Sin of the hidden tradeoff
- A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. For example paper that is sustainably harvested but is then treated with chlorine or other processes that are not compatible with sustainable practices. A specific form of this is called “forgetting the lifecycle” according to Building Green.
- Sin of no proof
- An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. An example would be a paper product that claims it has recycled material with no proof.
- Sin of vagueness
- A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. Using the word “all natural” when there are many natural ingredients that are hazardous such as arsenic, or formaldehyde.
- Sin of worshiping false labels
- A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists. Using a logo that is similar to a logo that is used for certification.
- Sin of irrelevance
- An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products such as aluminum free baking soda while no baking soda has aluminum. The claim would only be relevant if it was baking powder so is easily confused.
- Sin of lesser of two evils
- A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. For example, organic cigarettes.
- Sin of fibbing
- Environmental claims that are simply false. For example claiming certification when none has been established.
Building Green has a few more categories as follows.
- Bait and Switch
- A company heavily promotes the environmental attributes of a single product, while selling and manufacturing a bulk of otherwise similar products that lack the same environmental attributes. For example Clorox which owns Burt’s Bees or Schmidt’s deodorant which is owned by Unilever.
- Rallying behind a lower standard
- A product earns an apparently valid, third-party certification–but the product’s manufacturer or trade association had influenced the development of the relevant standard in a way that makes the certification less meaningful than it appears
- Reluctant enthusiast
- A company publicly embracing similar measures while secretly lobbying against them.
Other than potentially duping customers into unwittingly purchasing products that disappoint what is the danger in this?
Ogilvy & Mather writes that greenwash is “insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.”
If consumers can’t tell the difference between greenwashing and genuinely sustainable products they will inevitably stop believing that there are actual choices to be made or that their choices even matter. Making consciencious consumer decisions is known as ‘dollar voting’. To quote Greenamerica.org. “Where you spend and invest your money is a powerful way of voting each day to support local communities, fair wages, and a healthy planet.” This can and should be done no matter what is happening in the legislative branch, but will only be effective if people can use their critical reasoning skills to tell the difference.
First thing that might be helpful is to know the symbols that actually represent legitimate certifications of products for being organic, humane, fair trade, and sustainable to name a few. Mother Nature Network has compiled such a list and it is worth a review.
Once you’ve reviewed this you may want to test out your knowledge using the Seven Sins ‘Name that Sin’ game. This is a fun and very useful tool to help you gauge your own knowledge and to become more proficient. We should all “shop with intention because the collective power of consumerism can steer companies towards more truthful and ethical products” Our Changing Climate.
As usual, if you want to explore these topics more fully my sources are all linked below.
From Greenwash to Great: A Practical Guide to Great Green Marketing (without the Greenwash). Source: Avoiding Greenwash and Its Dangers
Green beauty is very much coming into vogue, which is super exciting for multiple reasons: It’s healthier for our bodies, healthier for our children, and healthier for the environment. (If you aren’t familiar with the fact that the cosmetics industry is essentially unregulated, read all about that here.)
Source: Greenwashing – Wikipedia