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The Dangers of Greenwashing

Offer only authentic 'green' claims.

green*wash (gren'wosh)-v. The act of misleading purchasers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

The growing demand for more environmentally responsible goods and services has led many manufacturers to find cost-effective ways of improving both their own environmental performance and that of their offerings. As a result, cleaner and safer products are on the market. Computers, copiers, and other office equipment are available without hazardous components. Cars are more efficient. Fewer trees are being cut to make paper. Less polluting energy sources are increasingly common.

Unfortunately, however, some manufacturers want to compete in a market that demands "green" products-but they haven’t made the investments necessary to provide them. So they resort to creative advertising instead.

The practice of inflating a company’s or a product’s environmental benefits is known as "greenwashing." The practice appears to be growing, and purchasers are learning that they must carefully examine all environmental claims to ensure that the benefits they seek are reflected in the products and services they buy.

How it began

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when professional purchasers and individual consumers first became interested in buying green products, the following kinds of claims began appearing on products: earth-friendly; eco-safe; 100% natural; made with non-toxic ingredients. But manufacturers were using the terms indiscriminately and without any attempt to clarify them. Purchasers were rightly confused about the meaning of the claims.

Following numerous consumer complaints, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces a wide variety of consumer-protection laws, began investigating what the FTC Chair at the time referred to as "advertising pollution." As part of its investigation, the FTC identified various deceptive advertising practices, including manufacturers making unsubstantiated claims and misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of their products.

The FTC then issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims in 1992, outlining acceptable and unacceptable environmental marketing practices. The guidelines, revised and updated in 1998, require manufacturers to provide specific details explaining any environmental claim, without overstating an environmental attribute or benefit. Generic claims such as "environmental preferability," "environmentally friendly," or "Earth smart" are to be avoided because they don’t provide purchasers with any specific information that can be used to compare products, and they’re unacceptable without an accompanying explanation. After the FTC published its guidelines, the most egregious greenwashing decreased as manufacturers became more selective and accurate with their environmental claims.

Greenwashing returns

But greenwashing didn’t completely disappear. In fact, as demand for more environmentally preferable products rises, greenwashing appears to be re-emerging as an important concern for purchasers and other supply-chain professionals. The following are the most common practices to watch for:

* Fibbing: Although it’s rare, some manufacturers mislead customers about the environmental performance of their products, claiming they meet standards that they actually don’t. The EcoLogo program even has a fraud-advisory section on its website, warning purchasers about misuses of the EcoLogo certification mark.

* Unsubstantiated claims: Taking the "just trust us" approach, some manufacturers are unable to provide proof of their environmental claims. Others use words like "green" or "eco-" in their corporate or product names and hope no one asks for details. All environmental claims should be verified by an independent certifying body or auditor, or the manufacturer should be willing and able to provide the necessary documentation to prove a claim. Purchasers should be able to easily verify the recycled content of a product, for example, or to learn whether it contains any ingredients of concern.

* Irrelevance: Some manufacturers make factually correct environmental assessments that are no longer relevant for the product category. As an example, many aerosol products continue to make "CFC-free" claims even though CFCs have been banned in the products since 1978. These accurate but irrelevant claims can confuse even savvy purchasing professionals.

* The hidden trade-off: Many products make bold claims about a single environmental attribute, which can lead purchasers to mistakenly believe that it’s the only one of concern for the product category. A cleaning product manufacturer, for example, has displayed a certification mark documenting that its products are manufactured in a facility powered by renewable energy, which is clearly a beneficial environmental feature. No claims are made, however, about the potential environmental or human health hazards of the product itself. Purchasers could easily be misled to believe that the product is safer or uses safer ingredients than its competitors when that may not be true.

* Vagueness: Broad, poorly defined environmental claims such as "100% natural," for example, can be highly misleading because some naturally occurring substances such as arsenic and dioxin can be very harmful to human health. Legitimate environmental claims are not vague.

* Relativism: A product can be the most environmentally preferable product in its class but still be an inappropriate choice. The most fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle, for example, is still less preferable if an even more fuel-efficient mid-sized passenger car will suffice.

The right questions to ask

The challenge for purchasers and other supply-chain-management professionals is determining which environmental claims are meaningful and relevant and which should be avoided. The most powerful tool in your arsenal is the ability to ask good questions. When presented with a claim about a product or service, the following questions can be useful for determining the accuracy and relevancy of the claim:

What type of claim is being made? Is the manufacturer making a claim about a single environmental attribute, such as energy efficiency or recycled content, or a broader claim that the product meets an environmental-leadership standard? While incredibly valuable, single-attribute claims don’t address other potentially important and relevant issues.

When environmental standards are developed, analysts examine all of the environmental impacts of a product category, and the standards generally are designed so that only the top 20% of products in a category can meet them. This allows sufficient competition within the category to help keep prices competitive while still protecting human health and the environment.

Is a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol available for review? If a manufacturer can’t provide a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol, you might suspect that the claim is only a marketing ploy. When manufacturers do provide the standard, review it carefully to determine whether it references appropriate national or international environmental and performance standards.

Standards and testing protocols should have a clear and consistent meaning. They should be meaningful and verifiable, designed so that anyone unaffiliated with the standard can read it, interpret it, and know how to evaluate products against it. They should also be designed to ensure consistent evaluation results, meaning that different reviewers would likely reach the same conclusion about whether a product meets the standard or not.

How was the standard or protocol developed? It’s preferable that standards and testing protocols be developed in an open, public, transparent process similar to the way ANSI, ASTM, or other public standards are developed. The standard-setting organization should make records of the development process available for review.

In addition, multi-attribute standards should be based on human health and environmental considerations throughout the lifecycle of the product, from raw-material extraction through manufacture, use, and ultimate disposal of the product, and the lifecycle stages covered by the standard should be explicitly stated.

Who developed the environmental standard or testing protocol? The most trusted standards are those developed in a consensus-based process by broad stakeholder groups. Purchasers tend to be less trustful of standards developed by an individual manufacturer or trade association, fearing potential conflicts of interest.

What process is used to verify certification? There are a variety of procedures to verify that a product meets a standard. The more rigorous the procedure, of course, the more likely it is to be expensive for the manufacturer, but it also provides a greater degree of assurance for the customer. Procedures include self-certification by the manufacturer, self-certification with random audits from the standard-setting organization, independent certification from a third-party organization, and independent third-party certification with on-site audits. It’s important to note that a stringent verification process is relatively meaningless if the standard itself isn’t meaningful.

The recent rapid growth in markets for green products makes it relatively easy for purchasing professionals to specify them, knowing they’re widely available and affordable. Unfortunately, the interest in these products is encouraging some manufacturers to make ambiguous and sometimes misleading claims about the environmental performance of their products. But by relying on legitimate environmental standards and certification organizations and asking appropriate questions, purchasers can ensure they’re buying the highest-quality green goods.

Marketing green

On the other hand, beware of falling into the greenwashing habit when pursuing your own marketing efforts, as well. Avoiding greenwashing doesn’t require waiting for a perfect product-there’s no such thing as a perfectly "green" product, and it’s entirely fair to market environmentally preferable products as simply "greener," which reflects the stepwise nature of environmental progress and will be rewarded by consumers. But avoiding greenwashing does require that sound science, honesty, and transparency are paramount. For instance:

* Understand all of the environmental impacts of your product across its lifecycle. Don’t make claims about a single environmental impact or benefit without knowing how your product performs in terms of its other impacts, and without sharing that information with your customers.

* Understand and confirm the scientific case behind each green marketing claim. Provide evidence to anyone who asks, or rely upon third-party certifications (particularly those standards that are public).

* Use language that resonates with your consumer, but ensure that the language is truthful. Don’t use vague names and terms such as "environmentally friendly" without providing precise explanations of your meaning.

* Don’t try to make a customer feel "green" about a choice that’s basically unnecessary or even harmful. Help each customer find the product that’s right for them, based on their needs and wants.

* Tell the truth. Always tell the truth.

Green marketers and consumers are learning about the pitfalls of greenwashing together. This is a shared problem-and a shared opportunity.

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