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The Dangers of Greenwashing

(January 2008) posted on Fri Jan 11, 2008

Offer only authentic 'green' claims.


By Scot Case

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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