(First published April 2008, updated January 2012)
Going green is certainly no longer the realm of the so-called feral hippies, those pioneers of environmentally friendly living – it has become very much mainstream.
Many businesses have become aware there is green (dollars) in green – and lots of it. Some companies see past just the revenue side of things and have realized “wow, the planet *is* in trouble – and we’re contributing to it – let’s fix that”; an incredibly admirable – and correct – mindset.
Others however see the green market purely in dollars and cents terms and may be prepared to consciously mislead consumers in order to grab their business by posing as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are – this is called greenwashing.
I’m very conscious of greenwashing, not just because of my work on GreenLivingTips.com, but I’m also heavily involved with marketing. I know most of the greenwashing tricks and my interest in marketing vs. my interest in the environment can really cause moral dilemmas at times; as it does for any ethical company. As a business, it can be tough to keep things real when you know your competitor is upping the ante in green claims that are simply false.
Another problem is that modern consumerism is, well, non-green when it comes down to it; so we’re all fooling ourselves to a degree. We cannot consume our way out of this mess. A green lifestyle is as much about consuming less as it is about the choices we make in what we consume.
If you really examine most people’s lives, no matter how green they proclaim to be – including myself; you’ll find all sorts of decidedly environmentally unfriendly purchases and activities. It took us a while to get here and it’s going to take a long time for us to get back to living in harmony with the environment.
What really irks me is when people are consciously trying to do the right thing by decreasing their environmental impact and they fall victim to greenwashing – spending hard earned cash on often overpriced items that aren’t green in any way; or the other activities of the company selling the product well and truly overshadow any token measure.
Equally as frustrating is that these more unscrupulous companies make it harder for the genuine merchants who have a solid commitment to earth friendly business practices.
So how do you sort out who is who – who is genuine and who isn’t? The following are some traps to watch for and tips that may help; but the key point to remember is greenwashing is essentially about amping up the virtues of the small stuff while minimizing or totally ignoring the stuff that really matters.
Don’t go on the attack
One of the companies I used to consult for had a strong environmental commitment; but they occasionally received inquiries about green initiatives that were more like interrogations; the waterboarding kind. Presume the company is innocent until proven guilty – be polite in your probing and don’t go on the attack. You’ll likely get a more thorough response by doing so – it’s just a good way to kick off what may turn into a long-term relationship.
For a company that is just starting to feel their way in the world of green business, aggressive questioning could also lead them to reconsider whether the effort is worth it. Being a concerned consumer is good, but going on the attack before having all the details can be counter-productive.
Don’t be shy to ask the company questions about any particular aspect of their green commitment. Environmental initiatives should be a centerpiece of any company’s activities and they should be proud to explain things to you in more detail.
Read the fine print
Packaging can reveal all sorts of information about how green a product really is. For example, the product may be packaged in 100% recycled cardboard, but what about the ingredients or components of the actual product contained therein? Do bear in mind though that very few products are 100% green – just compare the level of the marketing spiel with the product to see if it matches. If it’s being exaggerated, stay clear of it as you won’t be able to be sure about any other claims.
Following on from the last point – it’s amazing how many products that are actually quite earth-friendly are packed in so much plastic that it pretty much negates any claim to environmental benefit. Look for minimal/recycled packaging wherever possible.
Research on the web
There’s a ton of forums and blogs around where the pioneers of the green movement and enthusiastic environmentalists hang out and discuss the virtues of companies and products. A search on Google using the following terms
.. can reveal all sorts of interesting information. However, do be careful to take anything you read with a grain of salt – the ubergreen brigade can be nitpickers and particularly brutal in their criticism :). Use the information as part of your decision-making process rather than the whole organic enchilada.
The web also provides some great tools for researching product ingredients.
Beware of buzzwords
Organic, green, earth friendly, low-impact, low emissions eco this and enviro that – all nice buzzwords, but go beyond the spin and look for the substance – how are these terms applied, what’s the justification and context? After all, crude oil is organic as it’s derived from what were once living organisms. “Organic” and “certified organic” can be very different beasties – and even the latter can be tricky.
Some buzzwords can also be used without any threat of legal repercussions. It’s my understanding that in the USA, the FDA and USDA still doesn’t have any rules on the use of the term “natural”.
.. and just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it’s harmless to you or the environment.
Lead-free bread isn’t a bonus, it’s an expectation. Sometimes companies will create an entirely irrelevant “green” feature to promote a product; touting it as being free of something that competing products don’t contain anyway.
Beware of major event sponsors
Just because Company X is sponsoring a green event doesn’t make them particularly environmentally friendly. What else are they doing for the rest of the year? If you see a company you know to be extraordinarily environmentally irresponsible sponsoring an event, be sure to let the organizers know.
Some companies will state they will donate X amount to a worthy environmental cause if you buy their products. That’s really nice, but it may be just a ploy – costing them next to nothing when compared to the extra sales the kudos brings; meanwhile their products are destroying ecosystems. If that’s their only claim to “green”, find another company to do business with.
Green and fair trade are closely linked. Companies manufacturing products or outsourcing manufacturing to other companies who do not observe the spirit of fair trade are likely not to be environmentally friendly.
Here’s an example – Company X is based in the USA. They have solar panels on the roof, they only use recycled paper, they donate a million bucks a year to environmental groups, their product packaging is made from bagasse etc. etc. etc. It sounds thoroughly green and they promote themselves that way.
What they don’t tell you is the manufacturing of their products is outsourced to a sweatshop in China where staff are abused and the company dumps a thousand tons of toxic waste products into the waterways each year. This does happen. Again, you need to ask pointed questions.
Certifications and endorsements
Certifications and endorsements by third parties are helpful – but who is the authority? Sometimes companies make up their own certification programs and the third party endorsement may be heavily biased; for example, it could just be industry collaboration. As much as you need to check into the product, you also should check into the certification and endorsement. If it’s dodgy, then it’s likely the product is as well, environmentally speaking.
Even some well known endorsements are a little whiffy. I won’t name names, but in the past I had occasion to seek endorsement for a service from one of the best known green-related organisations in the world. From the initial contact, all they were interested in talking about was legalese and money. I wound up with the impression the organisation would turn a blind eye to a multitude of environmental sins as long as they were receiving the bucks they demanded in order to display their logo.
Bear in mind too that a lack of certification doesn’t mean the product isn’t environmentally friendly either. There’s a stack of small businesses out there that do a great job in their green initiatives, but simply can’t afford or don’t have the time to chase certifications – or had an experience similar to mine that soured them on the idea.
This has been a popular marketing strategy “buy from us and we’ll plant a tree!” I use a similar angle myself for helping to gain new subscribers to my free newsletter. You need to ask – who is planting the trees? Where are they being planted? So many tree planting schemes fall over or can’t be quantified. Companies will usually be working with a partner who plants the trees on their behalf. Find out who that is and dig around a little – the seedlings may just be planted and then left to die; or not planted at all.
Cars are not green
They can never be. Ever. It’s impossible. Anything that requires so many resources in its manufacture, contains that much plastic, common and rare earth metals and then spends its life chewing fuel and components is an environmental nightmare, whatever spin you put on it. Even electric cars have their issues, particularly if their recharging is via electricity supplied by a coal fired power station.
Be very wary of any company that tries to tell you differently. It’s one thing to say “best fuel economy in its class” or “lowest emissions” or even “no emissions” – but “green” is just wrong and entirely misleading. Berate any auto maker or salesperson who tries to tell you differently :).
Cars aren’t going to disappear off our streets – we just need to stop fooling ourselves that driving can be green. However, environmental harm reduction is certainly a worthwhile goal – such as electric vehicles, recycled and recyclable components etc.
Something I’ve found with genuine companies is they’ll be very straightforward about their own inadequacies environmentally speaking. They don’t hide these things. A company that hides is one that lies. While they may not promote their failings with as much zeal as their green initiatives as it would be business suicide, companies with a genuine commitment will acknowledge they exist and what they intend to do about them. It’s one thing to say “yeh, we use mercury, bummer” quite another to say “mercury will be phased out within 2 months.”
Trust your instincts.
Most of us have quite good inbuilt BS meters; the problem is we sometimes want to believe differently to what the little voice of reason inside us is saying. If something doesn’t feel quite right about the company, regardless of the eco-lure they are spouting, find a company that sits well with you.
Avoiding greenwashing is a bit of a minefield – remember that marketers are psychologists of sorts. They know the pleasure and pain points of most consumers; they use warm and fuzzy stuff (help us save the panda cub!) equally as effectively as fear and guilt (stop killing the planet – buy X). They’ve studied what works and what doesn’t extensively; so you’ll be up against professionals.
If you spot a company that is greenwashing, don’t let it ride, have a word with them – it’s also quite possible that they actually don’t understand what they’ve done. See it as an opportunity to perhaps get them back on track or focusing on the elephant in the room rather than the mouse in the basement.
Another thing to bear in mind – companies respond to demand. If we continue to fall for greenwashing, they’ll continue in the practice. Don’t rely on government to fix this; it’s also up to responsible consumers to help stamp these practices out by being more discerning. Depriving a company of your hard earned dollars, telling them you have done so and why is the quickest and most effective way to send the message.