Greenwashing Claims are Pervasive

February 6, 2008

In the past year or so, all things "green" have become a hot fad. Sorting through green claims remains a difficult task. However, it's an essential task journalists must undertake to help audiences wade through the hype - often called "greenwashing" - and make appropriate decisions.

A couple of starting points for the basics of greenwashing are an overview provided by the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch (which is a wiki-type resource to which anyone can contribute), and a May 25, 2007, Sightline Institute post by Anna Fahey.

Greenwashing is ubiquitous, according to a November 2007 TerraChoice Environmental Marketing study that found that only one of 1,018 products claiming to be green was marketed without false or misleading claims, according to the organization's criteria. See "The Six Sins of Greenwashing."

There are no universally accepted rules for determining what's green. However, there are a number of general principles that can help you sort through the claims. And there are quite a few resources that can help you scrutinize the specifics of any particular claim. In thisTipSheet, we'll touch on some of the main principles, and focus on green products.

Other angles worth investigating include claims that an entire company is green; claims about green processes (of which green chemistry is an example); boasts of green results (something like sustainable development); or the interlinked roles of media and their advertisers in the proliferation of green claims.

One of the most important concepts to keep in mind for any green claim is that the creation of any product or development, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, has an environmental impact. Acquiring raw materials disturbs plants, alters water quality, contaminates air, and/or disrupts wildlife habitats. Creating goods costs energy and creates potentially harmful emissions. Transporting, marketing, buying new goods, and disposing of used goods costs more energy, creates more emissions, and disrupts more land, air, and water. The bottom line is that all green claims are relative; some products and processes are tied to less total environmental disruption than others, but all have some impact.

Another basic concern should be, "Is the product necessary?" Are organic cigarettes any better than regular cigarettes? Is a temperature-controlled butter dish that doesn't need batteries really essential?

The full impact of a product or development should also be considered. A 10,000 square foot house that claims to have many green features can have more net environmental impact than a "regular" 2,500 S.F. house, simply because of the greater consumption of materials. A ski resort claiming to be green because local facilities are energy efficient still has major environmental impacts as people travel to reach the resort. The resort may also greatly disrupt local wildlife, and significantly deplete local waters in the course of snowmaking and providing drinking water to skiers and employees. As another example, creation of a solar energy plant triggers numerous toxic emissions during the production of the solar collection devices and other components.

Many of the current claims of greenness are based solely on energy-related features. It's essential to also consider other realms, some of which are mentioned above, such as toxic effects, wildlife impacts, and disruption of air, water, soil, and climate. A truly comprehensive green analysis - which exists for very few products - should cover all aspects of the full lifecycle of a product or development. Early stabs at this type of analysis are discussed in the 1997 book, "Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things," by John Ryan and Alan Durning. See also: Tides Foundation video, "The Story of Stuff."

Given all these considerations, it's very difficult to assess the greenness of a product, process, or development. But asking questions that spin off from the basics already mentioned, or are included in the sources cited above, will get you started.

In addition, a number of groups around the world have been developing ratings for thousands of specific products. While not yet perfect, they can help you begin to assess claims.

Starting points for organizations that are members of the Global Ecolabelling Network include:

NORTH AMERICA

ASIA AND SOUTH PACIFIC

EUROPE

OTHER RESOURCES

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission is just beginning to delve again into the validity of green marketing, with plans to update its so-called Green Guides, last revised in 1998. It likely will be quite a while before there are hard results, but you can follow along as the federal effort unfolds. The first steps, focusing on carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, are highlighted here. Media contact: 202-326-2180.

Along with these sources, there often are one or more manufacturing, advocacy, or government groups providing their perspective on a particular product or class of products. As a few examples, here are some previous TipSheets: