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The Dangers of Greenwashing

(January 2008) posted on Fri Jan 11, 2008

Offer only authentic 'green' claims.

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By Scot Case

* 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.