An Introduction to Greenwashing

green•wash: (grēn'wŏsh', -wôsh') Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service (Greenpeace).

Walk into any supermarket or box store today and you will find hundreds of products lining the shelves that claim to be "green" or "environmentally-friendly" in some way. It could be that the label or font is simply colored green, the product's packaging is earth-toned or uses "non-mainstream" artwork or design, or the product features a leaf, tree, earth, animal, flower, sun, water, or sky symbol or image. These same characteristics can be applied to billboards, advertisements (both print and video), as well as other forms of media put out by companies and organizations in attempts to boost their "green" image and subsequently appeal to a broader range of consumers.

Visual tricks are not the only form of greenwashing. Claims made through word choice also have a very significant impact on the way in which a product or company is perceived by a consumer. Phrases and words including "natural," "biodegradable," "compostable," "recycle," "164 reuse," "eco-friendly," "organic," "eco," "green," and "sustainable" are constantly being used to describe products and companies, but these claims are not required to be supported or backed in any way by facts or proof. Today's consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally-conscious and concerned with where their products are coming from and how they are made. Companies are well aware that it is in their best interest to appeal to this expanding niche in the global market, and therefore they are willing to go to any lengths (even lie) in order to come across to consumers as being "green."

Greenwashing is a process that's affecting our food, cosmetics, cars, household products, electronics, services, etc., and yet it is rarely taken into account or discussed. As some of the more obvious aspects of greenwashing (for instance, the use of the color green in packaging and labeling) are becoming exposed, businesses and corporations are thinking up new ways to better disguise the greenwashing they're employing. This means that we as consumers need to be more alert, aware, and conscious than ever of the products and services we are spending our money on. But how are we supposed to know? How can we recognize greenwashing and avoid buying into it? 

The answer is to educate yourself about how greenwashing works. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it would be very difficult to avoid buying into greenwashing all together, especially in a society in which it is both so prevalent and hidden, but the following criteria are a good start. An environmental marketing and consulting firm, TerraChoice, has compiled a list of "The Seven Sins Of Greenwashing," which are "The Hidden Trade-Off," "No Proof," "Vagueness," "False Labels," "Irrelevance," "Lesser of Two Evils," and "Fibbing." Detailed descriptions of each "Sin" can be found at their website. (You can even play the game "Name that Sin!" to put your knowledge of greenwashing-or lack thereof-to the test.) Similarly, Greenpeace has developed four criteria that can be used to analyze greenwash: "Dirty Business," "Ad Bluster," "Political Spin," and "It's the Law, Stupid!." All of these criteria are extremely helpful in 1.) learning the broader processes and inner-workings behind greenwashing, and 2.) developing a greenwashing "consciousness" that will allow you to identify greenwashing when you see it.

How are companies held accountable for the "green" claims they make in regards to their products and services? For one, informed and conscious consumers certainly provide a challenge to greenwash. Numerous websites are devoted to exposing specific examples of greenwash and informing the public about which products and companies to look out for. Greenwashing Index allows anyone to post an ad or commercial that utilizes some form of greenwash, and users are able to vote on the degree of greenwash they feel is being displayed. The Greenwashing Blog has a similar site in which examples of greenwash found in ads, commercials, displays, billboards, etc. are posted to raise awareness of particular companies that might be repeat offenders or especially hypocritical when claiming to be "green." Last year, The Guardian ran a Greenwashing series featuring a variety of news stories that dealt with current examples of this issue.

Although greenwashing may not be a "new" issue, it is still happening and needs to be addressed. According to TerraChoice, at least 95% of products that claim to be "green" in some way are in fact committing at least one of the "Seven Sins of Greenwashing," which would imply that they are actually not "green" at all. As of 2010, only 4.5% of all products were completely "sin-free," which, according to TerraChoice, means that they did not commit any of the "Seven Sins." However, in 2009, only 2% of all products were "sin-free," so there is hope that we are slowly making progress! When it comes to the battle against greenwashing, the most important thing to remember is to question everything, and know your facts! Force yourself to go beyond the green leaf symbol and find out what the brand is trying to claim, and if their claims are supported by any real or valid evidence or not. And the next time you discover a case of really bad greenwash, post it to the Greenwashing Index to alert other consumers.

I plan to analyze more specific and current examples of greenwashing in future blog posts, so keep reading! In the meantime, what are some cases of greenwash you've experienced in the past? Do you have any tips for how to identify greenwash before unknowingly buying into it? Are you aware of specific instances of greenwash that have happened recently?