Green Washing Away Our Future
Companies that are weakening the green brand with false claims, self certification and hype are doing a disservice to every firm that's trying to do the right thing.
Imagine for a moment that you're transported to a parallel universe where "good, clean living" is seen as the best way to save the planet from cultural anarchy. You're not a big believer. In fact, you’re about to get remarried for the third time. But there’s a snag: Your wife’s family insists that only someone “pure of heart” may marry their daughter. They ask that you be tested and certified by an uninterested party on issues of honesty, financial management and piety. But instead, you decide to write your own test, and have one of your employees tally your score. Not surprisingly, you pass with flying colors. In fact, you're recommended as a contestant for the popular "Who's the Cleanest of Them All" game show.
You show up on the wedding day wearing a blazing white polyester suit of purity.
So why do the inlaws still look terribly unhappy?
Back to our reality. Green claims seems to be everywhere. People are confused. If vinyl siding is "green," does that mean wood isn't? If VOCs cause cancer, why are low VOC paints green? Shouldn't they be No-VOC paints? Part of the blame must fall on manufacturers. Many claim to have “embraced” the green revolution, but they don't like the rules. They dislike third-party certification programs, so they make up their own programs, staffed with their own sycophants who always seem to find something glowing to say about their employers.
Result: They weaken what green labeling means to consumers. The problem is nothing new. More than a decade ago (in 2010), I reported on a study called “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” from a now-defunct company called Terrachoice, that listed some common examples of how product makers use marketing ploys to corrupt the green message.
- In the United States, there is a brand of aluminum foil with certification-like images that bear the name of the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.
- In Canada, one paper towel product uses a certification-like image to make the bold (if vague statement) ‘this product fights global warming.'
- Several brands of air fresheners give the impression of certification of the claim ‘CFC-free’ (thereby committing both the Sin of Worshipping False Labels and the Sin of Irrelevance)
The same thing happens frequently in the building industry. For example, instead of conforming to GreenGuard standards some paint companies have decided to create their own in-house certification standards. The same is true of the cabinet industry. I hear frequently from readers trying in vain to find brands of cabinets that do not contain formaldehyde and other offgassing toxins.
Advertising spending on so-called green products is way, way up. But it’s often meaningless. As I reported in a previous story, for example, Whole Foods has a tremendous reputation as a “green” company. In reality it’s no more green than Rite Aid, and being purchased by Amazon is unlikely to move the needle in the right direction. Another common green "dodge" happened in the forestry products industry a decade ago. Industry operatives didn't like the reputable FSC certification for wood, so they created something called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or SFI. That's a topic for another blog, but suffice it to say environmental groups have many, many reservations about SFI. History shows that self-regulation is weak regulation.
The news is not all bad, however. An organization called Ecolabelindex tracks the truth behind green labeling worldwide. Increasingly sophisticated, buyers are becoming less likely to be fooled by green colored brochures, logos that look like certifications, and fast-talking sales reps.