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Do You Really Know What You Are Buying? The Perils of GreenWashing…

February 6, 2008

Although many organisations recognize ethical and sustainable purchasing as a key strategic issue, barriers to action still exist.  One example is a lack of awareness or understanding what constitutes an ethically or environmentally preferable product or ‘green’ product.  Many products can claim to be “all natural”, “environmentally friendly” or even “fair trade”, but without certification to back these claims, it is difficult to know what, exactly, you are buying.  A recent report from Terra Choice Marketing, “The Six Sins of Greenwashing” highlight six specific, and not so uncommon practices, of companies providing misleading product information: 

1)       The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off

This sin is characterised by using one environmental attribute to suggest that a product is “green”.  The report cites that often claims are made based on a narrow set of green criteria and do not necessarily take into account a complete environmental analysis that looks at a product’s full lifecycle.   A case in point is a recent article (see below) from Queens Journal on a “carbon-positive” wine company.  Plantatree wine promises to plant a conifer sapling for every bottle sold in an attempt to offset the CO2 emitted from an average Canadian.  While a laudable initiative, the article points out that it may be more beneficial to offset the emissions caused from the production process for making the wine itself.   

2)       The Sin of No Proof

Pretty self-explanatory, ‘the sin of no proof’ occurs when product make unsubstantiated claims about their green attributes.  Products sometimes make claims to be energy-efficient or not tested on animals, to name a few examples, but provide no backup information or certification as proof. 

3)       Sin of Irrelevance

Products will sometimes promote themselves as being distinctively green when in reality, they are acting in compliance with local laws and regulations.  Terra Choice uses “CFCs” as an example.  These substances have been legally banned for 30 years, therefore all products are CFC-free.  Those touting themselves as such are misleading the public into believing they are in some way more progressive than they really are. 

4)       Sin of Vagueness

The sin of vagueness is characterized by claims that are ambiguous or meaningless.  One common example is products that print the Mobius loop (recycling symbol) without a qualifying statement that tells consumer exactly what, and how much, of the product is made from recycled content. 

5)       Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

Organic cigarettes or environmentally preferable herbicides are examples of products guilty of ‘the sin of lesser of two evils’.  Although such products may indeed offer favourable environmental attributes, the products, themselves, pose greater negative impact to the environment and human health. 

6)       Sin of Fibbing

Again, this is pretty self-explanatory.  Simply put, some products will lie outright about their environmental qualifications.  Although this is least common among the sins, it can occur. How do you avoid these sinful products?  The recommended approach is to first look for eco certifications standardized by bodies that issue guidelines for making environmental claims.  As an example, ISO 14024 sets guidelines or standards for third party Eco-labelling organizations to follow and ensures that environmental information is presented accurately.  Furthermore, the report suggests that consumers remain aware of the six sins and attempt to evaluate products accordingly. 

Although this report focused on greenwashing, the same may occur with ethical claims as well.  Therefore, look for fair trade certifications for added assurance these products meet the standards you expect.

Look for the Logo.  (Examples of product certifications)

Ecologo   Fair Trade Certified

More information on product certifications bodies:

www.ecologo.org

www.transfair.ca

For a copy of the TerraChoice report, please go to: http://www.terrachoice.com/Home/Greenwashing/The%20Six%20Sins 

Queen’s journal article on Green Wine: http://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2008-01-15/news/tapping-sustainable-wine/ 

For more information on ISO 14024, please go to: http://www.iso.org/iso/iso_catalogue/catalogue_tc/catalogue_detail.htm?csnumber=23145

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