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The deadly sins….

Posted 11/11/2010 by KatieJ

….of green washing that is, have increased to seven, up from six in 2007, according to Shyam Ramrekha, a sustainability consultant from Canadian consultancy TerraChoice, speaking last week at the Cleaning Products conference held in Alexandria, Virginia, US. The latest sin is that of ‘worshiping false labels,’ which is committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists. And that presents a good example of what green washing is all about: making a product seem more ‘green’, for example, based on the 12 principles of green chemistry, than it actually is. Green washing can be, and is used to make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

According to Melissa Whellams and Chris MacDonald, in the Encyclopedia of Business Ethics & Society, green washing is ‘a perjorative term derived from the term white washing and was coined by environmental activists to describe efforts by corporation to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings.

‘The term green washing was originally confined to describing misleading instance of environmental advertising, but as corporations’ efforts to portray themselves as environmentally virtuous have diversified and proliferated, so have charges of green washing.’

This is echoed by the Collins English Dictionary which defines ‘green wash’ as ‘a superficial or insincere display of concern for the environment that is shown by an organisation’.

And this represents a serious problem for all those who are genuinely trying to develop sustainable products. As Ramrekha noted in a recent survey of Canadian consumers in the Globe & Mail newspaper: ‘46% of Canadians cited their belief that companies are green washing’, that is lying or exaggerating their environmental claims.

So what are the other six sins of green washing?

First, there is the obvious ‘sin of no proof’: environmental claims that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or reliable third-party certification; followed closely by the ‘sin of the hidden trade-off’: suggesting a product is ‘green’ based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes, without attention to other important environmental issues.

Then there is the ‘sin of the lesser of two evils’: using claims that may be true within the product category, but risk distracting the purchaser or consumer from the greater impacts of the category a whole. This runs on into the associated sins of’ vagueness’, in which claims are used that are so poorly defined or broad that they are poorly understood, and ‘irrelevance’, covering environmental claims that are true but unhelpful or unimportant.

And finally there is the very basic ‘sin of fibbing’, or simply using false claims, which surprisingly TerraChoice says is the least frequent sin.

The bad news is that TerraChoice has found that more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be ‘green’ were committing at least one of these deadly sins of green washing.

The good news, however, is that Ramrekha reported the number of products examined by TerrChoice and found to be sin-free has increased to 4.5%, compared with only 2% in 2009. And that is in a marketplace in which the number of ‘green’ products has increased by 73%, to 4744 products, over the same period.

But a major problem that cannot be overlooked in all this is the definition of green, something that C&I has touched on more than once. And as Kermit the Frog says: ‘It’s not easy being green’.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    15/11/2010 09:14

    Corporations are not the only ones doing the green-washing. Politicians and activists also practise the black art as they seek to present their achievements in the greenest possible light. Typically, green-wash serves to assuage the guilt of consumers (and voters) about waste. For example, it's OK to drive an SUV if you fill the tank with biodiesel; it's OK to litter if the carrier-bag is labeled biodegradable; etc. Who can blame the politicians for joining the activists in trumpeting regulations that encourage wasteful behaviour when it makes consumers feel good?