Say you consider yourself a conscious consumer (and I suspect that many readers do). When given a choice between a traditional product and its greener counterpart, you buy the latter. Now, what if it turned out that you'd been misled about the sustainability of all but a few of your purchases?
That's pretty much the conclusion of "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing," published by Canadian firm TerraChoice: 98 percent of so-called natural or environmentally friendly products sold in the U.S. make false or misleading claims. The report garnered lots of headlines echoing its indignation when it came out earlier this year, and another wave of media attention came earlier this month in the wake of a congressional hearing on defining fair green-marketing practices (TerraChoice vice president M. Scot Case was among the witnesses who testified).
I think it's helpful, however, to think about the difference between marketing hype and out-and-out deceit. The greenwashing "sins" enumerated by TerraChoice's report include not only lies (like the supposedly Energy Star-approved refrigerator Case himself bought that wasn't) and the use of fictional third-party certification logos—in other words, deliberate disinformation—but also things like vagueness (claims that are "poorly defined or broad") and irrelevance (like proclaiming a product is "CFC-free" despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law).
I'm not so sure that those last two examples amount to greenwashing so much as they amount to greenhyping (if I may coin the term). I go back and forth on this, but recently I've begun to lean toward a stricter definition of "greenwash," in part because of sustainable-business guru Joel Makower's thoughts on the subject.
The way I figure, all kinds of products make all kinds of exaggerated claims. For example, this post in comedian Jennifer Dziura's blog points to a shampoo that says it gives hair a "mirror-like shine." If that were even possible, she writes, mightn't the product's maker incur some criminal liability for making looking at people's hair "equivalent to staring directly at the sun"?
Such hyperbole in traditional products is unfortunate, but the fact is, we're so used to it that most of us don't even give it a second thought. There's no reason we can't apply the same skepticism to products in the green marketplace. In fact, in many cases we already do. I'm reminded of this bag (at left) that I got at some grocery store or other. Not only did I laugh at the contention that the piece of brown paper in my hand could "save our planet" but I also knew perfectly well that the environment would have been better served if I'd remembered to bring a reusable sack from home. Greenwashing? Meh. Greenhyping? Definitely.
It's worth reading Makower's take on the "Seven Sins" report. He points out that it's hard to know what percentage of sins in the 2,000-plus products examined by TerraChoice are what he'd consider justified criticisms and what amount to "nit-picking" on the part of the authors, because the report is guilty of the same lack of transparency it complains about in some of the products it analyzed. "There are no products named, no sinners shamed," Makower writes. (To which I say: That's probably because TerraChoice is an environmental marketing company. Since it makes money by helping companies become greener, it wouldn't necessarily be in its interests to name names.)
I'm not trying to completely diss "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing"—in fact, I find its categorization of the different ways green marketing can go astray quite useful—I'm just saying its big takeaway comes across as a bit sensationalist. If every instance of greenhyping gets lumped into the "greenwashing" category, that has the effect of drowning out the true crimes.