Can you tell the difference?
Even before ‘greenwashing’ had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, it had been sneakily adopted by the cynical and irresponsible in every industry. Many companies across the consumer, manufacturing and tourism sectors are guilty of adopting the word ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, but simply donating money to ‘green’ causes, choosing to recycle or any other lip-service does not a sustainable organisation make.
The Oxford Dictionary defines greenwash as: "disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible image". Others describe it as "... when a company or organisation spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimise their environmental impact".
Essentially, greenwashing is a dishonest practice of convincing consumers that they are making the right environmental choice by buying products or services that impact negatively on the environment, personal health or community rights.
But many ask "what's the harm" - and that's what these unethical and misleading companies want. In truth, greenwashed product or services are not only harmful to the environment, but they impact our health, safety and - in some cases, even the rights of workers and host communities.
Greenwashing is effectively stealing from you - the consumer, and placing you at unnecessary risk. Imagine you purchased a shampoo that claimed to be 'organic' but which in fact contained harmful chemicals, endangered plant species or worse? Shampoo's, soaps and many other everyday consumables all have an impact on the environment, but some manufacturers have taken steps to either replace harmful elements with earth-friendly alternatives, or even discontinued the production altogether.
Greenwashing can take the form of one or more of what are now referred to as 'sins'. These 'sins' are each designed to achieve a particular outcome, and if you are aware of them, you can make a more informed choice.
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing
1. Hidden Trade-off
Manufacturers often make exagerated environmental claims to distract buyers from the less obvious - and negative impacts of a product.
2. No Proof
Making environmental claims is probably as easy as talking to your imaginary friend. Manufacturers claims often cannot be supported by proof of any kind and consumers need to start asking the right questions.
Being vague about the environmental impacts of products can include statements such as 'no signifficant impact' or 'biodegradable'. Each of these terms are vague until they are specifically supported by evidence. Often though, this evidence is unavailable.
Car manufacturers often claim that their vehicles are 'low emission' or 'earth friendly' without actually recognising that they still use fossil fuels for energy or that their batteries or fuel cells are often extremely harmful to the environment. The relevance to their products are hard to see, but that doesn't seem to stop them!
5. The Lesser of Two Evils
Does the fact that the product is kind to people when it is hazardous to animals and the environment? No, of course not but many advertisers tend to play negative impacts off against each other in the hope that you will decide which is the lesser of two evils when you buy.
In short - lying! While a 'fib' is something most people think harmless, greenwash 'fibs' are extremely harmful and nothing more than deliberate lies. Unless aproduct is truly 'green', why even make the claim. It is a deliberate act, not an unfortunate slip!
7. Worshiping False Labels
More and more manufacturers are starting their own labels in an effort to get your money. Look at the number of products that now have a 'seal' which says something innocuous like 'Earth Friendly'; 'Low VOC's', 'Certified Green' or worse. These are what are known as in-house labels, concocted by marketing people to sell product. Unless a product manufacturer is prepared to undergo independent verification of compliance against internationally accepted standards of environmental responsibility, don't even look at their products. They are comitting all of the above 'sins'.
So what can you do about it?
You have more power than you probably know, and the best way to stop greenwashing is to say something. Start questioning the advertising claims of manufacturers. Get them to explain exactly what makes their product 'green' - you will probably find they can't!
You can also start talking about products that you either suspect of - or those you know, are greenwashing. Take to Twitter. Facebook. consumer groups, social media and blogs and let everyone know what you suspect or know. That get's businesses thinking clearly and suddenly, they start to 'play fair'.