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The Dangers of Greenwashing

(January 2008) posted on Fri Jan 11, 2008

Offer only authentic 'green' claims.


By Scot Case

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.


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