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Simply put it is whitewashing, using a green brush. Everyone has heard the expression “whitewashing” which is described as “a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, especially in a political context.” “Greenwashing” is the same premise, but the context is the environment. When companies spend time and money claiming to be green and environment friendly through advertising and marketing but actually do not implement business practices that minimize environmental impact. Thus it is whitewashing but with a green brush. A classic example is of an energy company that runs an advertising campaign declaring a “green” technology that they’re working on but that “green” technology represents only a miniscule portion of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business, or may be marketed on the heels of an oil spill or a plant explosion. Or a hotel chain that calls itself “green” because it allows the guests to choose to sleep on the same sheets and reuse towels, but in reality does very little to save water and energy where it counts the most, with its appliances and lighting, in its kitchens, and with its vehicle fleet.
Greenwashing is not a recent phenomenon; since the mid-1980s the term has gained wide recognition and acceptance to describe the practice of making unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness as an attempt to capture market share. Although greenwashing has been around for many years, its use has skyrocketed sharply in recent years as companies have strived to meet an ever increasing consumer demand for greener products and services, according to an advertising consultancy TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. Last year TerraChoice issued its second report on the subject that identified around 2,219 products making green claims— an increase of almost 79% over the company’s first report two years earlier.
TerraChoice also concluded that 98% of those products were guilty of greenwashing. Furthermore, according to TerraChoice vice president Scot Case, the problem is escalating. TerraChoice also measured green advertising in major magazines and found that between 2006 and 2009, the number grew from about 3.5% of all ads to just over 10%; today, Case says, the number is probably higher still. Case says researchers are currently working on another update that will be released later this year, and he forecasts that the numbers of products making dubious green claims will more than double.
Compounding the problem is the fact that environmental advertising—in the United States, at least—is not strictly regulated. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency responsible for protecting the public from unsubstantiated or unscrupulous advertising possesses a set of environmental marketing guidelines known as the Green Guides. Published under Title 16 of the Code of federal regulations, the Green Guides were created in 1992 and most recently updated in 1998. The FTC originally planned to begin a review of the Green Guides in 2009, but the commission had to move the schedule up, according to DeMartino, in response to a changing landscape in environmental marketing. “The reason, at least anecdotally, was an increase in environmental marketing claims in many different sectors of the economy and newer claims that were not common, and therefore not addressed, in the existing Guides,” she says. “These are things like carbon offsets or carbon-neutrality claims, terms like ‘sustainable’ or ‘made with renewable materials.’”
The FTC conducted a series of workshops in 2008, holding different events for each of the three areas: carbon-offset and renewable-energy claims, green packaging, and buildings and textiles. In association with each workshop, the FTC requested suggestions to help shed light on consumer perception of green advertising, but DeMartino told the commission received very few of them. The FTC responded to this gap by setting up a research firm, Harris Interactive, to provide the much needed information. DeMartino says that research has been completed, and a report on it will accompany the revision announcement, which is expected soon.
The Health Impact of GreenWash: One of the major results of greenwashing is public confusion and deceit of pubic. But greenwashing also poses a threat to the environment and even to the public health at large. According to various reports greenwashing is indeed very harmful.
In 2008, the authority rebuked Dutch energy giant Shell for intentionally misleading the public about the environmental effects of its oil sands development project in Canada in the course of advertising its efforts to “secure a profitable and sustainable future.” While acknowledging the term “sustainable” is “used and understood in a variety of ways by governmental and non-governmental organisations, researchers, public and corporate bodies and members of the public,” the authority also noted that Shell provided no evidence backing up the “sustainability” of the oil sands project, which led to wide criticism for its environmental impact.
In the year 2008, the Malaysia Palm Oil Council released a TV commercial declaring itself as eco-friendly; a voice-over stated “Malaysia Palm Oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Malaysia Palm Oil. A gift from nature, a gift for life.” But according to Friends of the Earth and other critics of the ad, palm oil plantations are very much linked to rainforest species extinction, habitat loss, and pollution from burning to clear the land, destruction of flood buffer zones along rivers, and various other adverse effects. The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority agreed, declaring the advertisement in violation of its advertising standards; contrary to the message of the ad, the authority ruled, “there was not a consensus that there was a net benefit to the environment from Malaysia’s palm oil plantations.”
Sins of Greenwashing:
Sin of the hidden trade-off: It is committed by suggesting that a product is “green” based on very unreasonably narrow set of attributes without paying much attention to other important environmental issues (e.g., paper produced from a sustainably harvested forest may still yield significant energy and pollution costs). Sin of no proof: It is committed by an environmental claim that cannot be proved by easily accessible supporting information or by any reliable third-party certification (e.g., paper products that claim various percentages of postconsumer recycled content without providing any evidence of the same). Sin of vagueness: It is committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is generally misunderstood by the people (e.g., “all-natural”). Sin of irrelevance: It is committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is not important or is unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products (e.g., “CFC-free” is meaningless given that chlorofluorocarbons are already banned by law in many countries). Sin of lesser of two evils: This is committed by claims that may be truthful within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater health or environmental impacts of the category as a whole (e.g., organic cigarettes). Sin of fibbing: They are committed by making environmental claims that are simply not true (e.g., products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified). Sin of false labels: committed by exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification using fake labels or claims of a third-party endorsement (e.g., certification-like images with green jargon such as “eco-preferred”).
Environment: At its very worst, greenwashing is bad for the environment as it can encourage consumers to do the exact opposite of what’s good for the environment. At its most benign, greenwashing makes claims that are neutral for the environment — it’s just making green claims to sell more products. Consumers: Nobody likes to be taken advantage of, especially when it comes to money. So, the next time you see an environmental claim, ask yourself about “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth” before you buy the product. The last thing you want to do is spend money on a product or service you believe is doing right by the environment, but in the reality is not — or not as much as the ad might lead you to believe so.
Businesses: Smart businesses are learning
that doing right by the environment actually does increase profitability and market share in many cases. With so many easy ways for businesses to reduce their adverse environmental impact or improve their products and processes, it’s depressing when they don’t. It’s even worse when the companies don’t make changes and claim to be a green company just to push their agenda. When properly trained, consumers see right through this “green screen.” Then greenwashing backfires, hurting the company’s reputation and, ultimately, their sales affecting their profitability. That’s why we use a Greenwashing Index. The more consumers see through greenwashing, the more it will lead to its failure. And that’s better for the economy as well as the environment.
When we rate an ad with this
1. The ad misleads with words. Do you believe that the ad misleads the viewer/reader about the company’s/products environmental impact through the things it says? Does it seem to be using the words are trying to make you believe there is a green practice when there isn’t any? Focus on the words only — what do you think the ad is really saying?
2. THE AD MISLEADS WITH VISUALS AND/OR GRAPHICS. Do you think the advertiser has used green or natural images in a way designed and programmed to make you think the product/company is very environmentally friendly than it really is?
3. THE AD MAKES A GREEN CLAIM THAT IS VAGUE OR SEEMINGLY UNPROVABLE. Does the ad claim many environmental benefits without sufficiently identifying for you what they really are? Has the advertiser provided a credible source for the claims or for more information? Are the claims really related to the company/product?
4. THE AD OVERSTATES OR EXAGGERATES HOW GREEN THE PRODUCT/COMPANY/SERVICE ACTUALLY IS. Do you believe the advertiser is inflating how green the product/company really is? Are the green claims made by the ad believable? Do you think it’s realistically possible for the product/company to do the things depicted/stated in the advertisement?
5. The ad leaves out or masks important information, making the green claim sound better than it is. Do you think the ad is there to divert attention from something else the company actually does? Do you believe the relevant collateral consequences of the product/service are communicated in the ad? Does it seem to you that something is missing from the ad?
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