Greenwashing and the Ecology Center’s Solution Salons

by Debra Berliner, Climate Action Coordinator

Walk down the aisles of most stores and prepare to be inundated with the language of “green.” From Safeway to Saks, products claiming to be “sustainable,” “all natural,” “ecological,” or “earth friendly” cover the shelves. Turn on the TV or open the newspaper and you’ll be flooded with “green” vocabulary once again – not only in product ads, but in the rhetoric of political candidates, government entities, trade associations, and even non-governmental organizations. We can likely agree that reducing waste, toxicity, and greenhouse gas emissions are goals with great merit. But how do we distinguish between genuine environmental action and cynical attempts to cover up environmentally harmful behavior and preserve and expand one’s market with the semblance of environmental responsibility?[i] In other words, how do we identify greenwashing? And what can we do once we catch greenwashing in action?

These were among the questions asked at a recent Ecology Center Regenerating Solutions Salon, “The Red Flags of Greenwashing.” As speakers Ali Geering-Kline of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Jennifer Kaplan, author of “Greening Your Small Business” explained, greenwashing can be incredibly transparent or ambiguous and hidden. On the transparent end of the spectrum, we’ve got Terry the “Fracosaurus,” a cartoon creation of Canadian global oil and gas company Talisman Energy. The company recently released a 24-page coloring book for children explaining the “virtues” of natural gas — “one of the cleanest, safest fossil fuels”, according to Terry. In reality, EPA reports to Congress dating as far back as 1987 suggest that chemicals used in the fracking process have been implicated in drinking water contamination, posing grave threats to human health and the environment.[ii]

There are, however, times that identifying greenwashing takes more than a gut reaction, instead requiring serious homework. For instance, CEH tested dozens of shampoos, lotions, toothpastes, and other personal care products claiming to be organic and found that not only was that claim false and in violation of California law for many of these products, but many also contained toxic ingredients suspected of disrupting hormones and/or causing asthma, cancer or other health problems.

So how can we spot the red flags of greenwashing? One helpful rubric is the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” developed by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. When trying to determine if you’re being greenwashed, ask yourself if the product, service, or statement in question commits any of these transgressions:

1. The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off: One environmental benefit is emphasized at the expense of potentially more serious concerns. Example: producing paper from a sustainably-harvested forest might still require significant amounts of chlorine for bleach and may result in notable greenhouse gas emissions.

2. The Sin of No Proof: An environmental claim that cannot be verified by accessible information or by a trustworthy third-party certification. Example: facial or toilet tissue claiming post-consumer recycled content without offering evidence.

3. The Sin of Vagueness: A marketing claim is so broad or ambiguous that the consumer will likely misunderstand its true meaning. Example: “All natural” is often used to imply healthy. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring yet do great harm when ingested in significant amounts.

4. The Sin of Worshipping False Labels: An image or language associated with a product suggests a third-party endorsement or certification where none exists. Example: JC Penney has a new “Simply Green” label assuring that a product is “made from organic, renewable, or recycled materials.” However, this can include products made from 30% non-organic cotton, or made from 75% non-renewable material or 75% non-recycled material.[iii]

5. The Sin of Irrelevance: An environmental claim is referenced that may be true but is unimportant or unhelpful. Example: a product is described as “CFC-free.” CFCs have been legally banned for several years and, therefore, are absent from all consumer products.

6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: A claim that’s true within the product category but distracts the consumer from the overall negative environmental consequences of the product. Example: organic cigarettes or fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.

7. The Sin of Fibbing: Environmental claims that are blatantly false. Example: products falsely claiming to have Energy Star-certification.

More than 95% of consumer products TerraChoice studied that were claiming to be green committed at least one of these “sins of greenwashing.”[iv]

Beyond evaluating products for these sins, Ali and Jennifer explained, there’s plenty you can do to avoid getting greenwashed. First, being a selective and skeptical consumer goes a long way, as does using good old common sense. Next, look for valid certification that is verifiable, consistent and clear, transparent, independent, and protected from conflict of interest. Credible eco labels include those from Energy Star, the US Green Building Council, the Forest Stewardship Council, the USDA, Green Seal Certified, the Fair Trade Labeling Organization International, and others. If you do notice greenwashing in action, contact corporations and policymakers to voice concerns or use public forums, including blogs, websites, social media, and Letters to the Editor to pressure companies to make changes. And when really bothered by a greenwash attempt, contact the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau or the Center for Environmental Health to register complaints.

But is greenwashing ever acceptable? If a company is doing at least some environmentally friendly work, is it fair for them to flaunt it? Hunter Lovins, founder of Natural Capitalism, Inc., author, and environmental leader speaks up for greenwashing. “I think greenwashing is good. Hypocrisy is the first step to real change. If a company makes a claim about something, then you can hold them accountable, and as they make small steps to bring their performance in line with what they’re marketing, to avoid a backlash for greenwashing, they actually see the benefit of that improved performance, and it becomes something they integrate into their business for real.”[v]

We ended “The Red Flags of Greenwashing” Salon with small group discussions about this and some of the stickier issues that greenwashing raises. What’s the real damage of greenwash? When does the responsibility of making smart consumption choices fall on the customer? And what does “being green” really mean?

To explore topics like these in depth and in community, join the Ecology Center for our quarterly Regenerating Solutions Salons. Salons involve community members in learning and discussion about questions, issues, and challenges that come up when engaging in environmental advocacy and personal action. Past Salons have asked, “How can you deal with resistance or indifference from others when trying to make environmental change?” facilitated by Non-Violent Communication practitioner, Renée Soule and “How can you create swapping and sharing networks in your community?” facilitated by Janelle Orsi, author of “The Sharing Solution” and co-founder and co-director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

More interested in infrastructure, policy, or activism? Come on out to the Ecology Center’s quarterly Movement Builders and Shakers Forums. Deepen your knowledge around political action, campaigns worth knowing about, and how you can plug in.

Next Movement Builders and Shakers Forum: Thursday, September 22, 7-9pm, “Smart Growth and Just Growth: the quest for equity in transit-oriented development”

Next Regenerating Solutions Salon: Thursday, October 6, 7-9pm, “Around the World Without a Plane: dispatches from a hot planet”

We hope to see you there!


[i] http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Greenwashing
[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/us/04natgas.html?_r=1
[iii] http://green.wikia.com/wiki/Certification_of_Green_Products
[iv] http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/findings/the-seven-sins/
[v] http://sustainableindustries.com/articles/2008/02/back-saddle-l-hunter-lovins

[Photo by TreeHugger]


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