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Fortunately, America at least is jumping wholeheartedly on the “green” bandwagon. Unfortunately, a fantastic majority of commercial products sold to the public under the banner of “natural and organic” are not actually any more environmentally friendly than their other commercial counterparts (based upon the FDA regulations for “green-ness”).

According to a new report, a certainly surprising majority of green products have absolutely no environmentally substantiated claims. We will look at the results and discuss the pitfalls of not questioning companies that sell products to first and foremost make money.

The Sins of Greenwashing

First of all, let me outline the debate here. I am not in any way against green products, I am however a proponent of skepticism, even in seemingly innocent areas.

“Greenwashing” is a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly. These are for-profit companies, and as such, they are very good at capitalizing on current trends to make money. In this case, companies skirt FDA regulations and stamp the words “organic” or “natural” on a product to take advantage of the public perception that green products are simply better.

Let’s look at the common ways these companies greenwash their products:

“The Seven Deadly Sins of Greenwashing” (TerraChoice Report)

1. The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off occurs when one environmental issue is emphasized at the expense of potentially more serious concerns. In other words, when marketing hides a trade-off between environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally preferable just because it comes from a sustainably harvested forest.

2. The Sin of No Proof happens when environmental assertions are not backed up by evidence or third-party certification. One common example is facial tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any supporting details.

3. The Sin of Vagueness occurs when a marketing claim is so lacking in specifics as to be meaningless. ‘All-natural’ is an example of this Sin. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.

4. The (new) Sin of Worshiping False Labels is when marketers create a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green certification process. One example of this Sin is a paper towel product whose packaging has a certification-like image that makes the bold claim that the product ‘fights global warming.’

5. The Sin of Irrelevance arises when an environmental issue unrelated to the product is emphasized. One example is the claim that a product is ‘CFC-free’, since CFCs are banned by law.

6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils occurs when an environmental claim makes consumers feel ‘green’ about a product category that is itself lacking in environmental benefits. Organic cigarettes are an example of this Sin.

7. The Sin of Fibbing is when environmental claims are outright false. One common example is products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified.

The colloquial use of the term “sin” not withstanding, these are all too common occurrences within the realm of green commercial products. Saving the environment is surely noble, but making a buck off of misrepresented products is not. I will refer to this as “the Natural Fallacy”.

Doing Your Homework

For the”Sins of Greenwashing” report, outlined above, TerraChoice visited 34 stores in the U.S. and Canada from March to May and surveyed 5,296 products that make environmental claims. The products included toys, baby care items, building materials, housewares, consumer electronics and health goods. A skyrocketing share of products claim to be free of phthalates, chemicals used to make plastics, and BPA or bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical.

The Results: only 4.5 percent of these products made accurate claims based on evidence. Which is  up from 2 percent in 2009 and 1 percent in 2007, when the first survey was done. 4.5 percent should be appalling to anyone who was convinced that their new lifestyle trend was saving some paper or reducing the gulf of Mexico dead zone etc. Again, this is marketing designed to take advantage of the power “green” has to sell merchandise.

Moral of the story: Do your homework. There are definitely green products out there, but until we have more stringent enforcement for these products, companies will use whatever they can to move some greenback. The natural fallacy, with support from this study, seems simply as that, a fallacy. Very little of what is marketed really has any substance at all; and just because something says “all natural” on the box does not mean we can take off our critical thinking caps.If you are dead set on using green products, do a little background checking on the product itself. The affirmation of the green claim will make that smug sense of superiority you get from “going green” taste all the sweeter.

Even in the wake of a movement as noble as environmental sustainability and protection, the instantaneous respect we give to green products should be founded upon, first and foremost, evidence of the claims. This is something which, for the moment, is critically lacking.

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