Greenwashing

By Sharon Naylor

April 15, 2015 6 min read

"Greenwashing" sounds like a wonderful, eco-friendly way to clean off apples and lettuces to make them safer to eat, but in fact, greenwashing is far from wonderful. It's a take on the term "white-washing," which means to mislead or hide unpleasant truths, in this case about a product or company's true eco-friendliness. It is considered greenwashing when a company spends more advertising dollars to promote their green practices than actually implementing green practices. It's also considered greenwashing when a product claims to be made with 100 percent recycled materials, but is not. And it's greenwashing when a company says that they've implemented green technology in their processes, when in fact that technology is only a small percentage of their methods. The list goes on, with all facets of it pointing to misleading messages about the eco-friendliness of a product, service or company.

According to research by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, 95 percent of "green" products are actually not as green as they claim. Instead, these products are greenwashed, advertised via descriptions or just an image of a green leaf on the label, which purports to be a sign that the product is green. Misled, consumers spend their dollars, shopping by their eco-friendly value system, thinking they're supporting the Earth or an eco-friendly resort or company. The Federal Trade Commission looks out for these incorrect messages and, to help protect consumers, offers revised "Green Guides" to marketers, helping to ensure that their claims about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful.

Companies that greenwash will use some of the following tactics and more:

--They claim their product is green without a third-party certification to prove it.

--They hide the big picture. A product may come from a sustainably harvested farm or forest, but the company doesn't mention the water pollution, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions created in the production of that item.

--They use vague terms such as "all-natural," a term that doesn't mean much. Mercury is a natural product, after all.

--They use false labels. A made-up green logo and fake certification can trick you into thinking the product has been endorsed by a legitimate eco-friendly organization.

--They may lie outright. A greenwashed item may be promoted as an Energy Sta item, when in fact it is not.

How can you trust or tell if a product or company is truly eco-friendly?

--Check the label. Buy products only from companies that list all the ingredients on the label, and check the brand's website to learn more about the product. Research is key when finding trustworthy brands.

--Don't be fooled by descriptions. Some common misleading phrases to look out for include "eco friendly," "environmentally friendly," "earth friendly," "environmentally safe" and "eco chemistry." Vague descriptions, again, can be a sign of greenwashing.

--Know which certifications are real. According to TerraChoice, some companies make great efforts to be sure their products are certified by legitimate associations, such as USDA, Energy Star, Green Seal, Fair Trade and Go Cruelty Free. If you've never heard of an unfamiliar certification, research it online. It may be a greenwashing tactic to label a product with a certification that is not legitimate.

--Be especially wary with certain categories. TerraChoice says that the two industries that experience a lot of greenwashing are toy and baby products and household cleaners. Some products in these categories claim to be free of BPAs (a hormone-disrupting chemical that has been linked to illnesses), but they actually use new, not-entirely-researched plastics that may be equally dangerous.

Now that you're more adept at spotting greenwashed products, what else can you do to avoid products that may be greenwashed?

--Create a list of trusted brands, ones you've researched online to find out their true eco-friendly reputation, and stick with products from their lines.

--Use glass and stainless-steel bottles when you can, especially if you're not entirely sure of the plastic bottles' and containers' materials.

--Research hotels' and resorts' green endeavors Web page to find out their entire list of eco-friendly methods before booking.

--Don't be fooled by the word "green." A grocery that says it's green because it only offers paper bags or takes back your plastic ones may not be entirely green. A green candle company may use lead wicks, while the wax is organic. You have to research all aspects of a green product before buying.

--Google the company name plus the word "environment" to see what comes up in the search results. If environmental groups have reported the company for faulty advertising, take note.

--Trust your gut. If a green claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.

It's unfortunate that not all product advertising is truthful and that we have to spend time researching products and services before buying. But it's enlightening to know more about what you and your family are using in your home, and the effort of researching can turn up some fascinating information that increases your ability to be a better-informed consumer.

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