A growing number of consumers say they are concerned about the environment and would like to have access to more environmentally friendly products. Sensing a money-making opportunity, many companies have changed the look of their products without actually making them more environmentally friendly, either in their composition or in their manufacturing process. Products become “green” overnight!
“Greenwashing is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies are environmentally friendly.”1 This ecological masquerade makes consumers vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated marketing manipulation. Since 2005, The Green Life, an environmental education group, has published a ranking of top greenwashing offenders called “Don’t Be Fooled.” As it becomes more widespread, does greenwashing become a riskier strategy? Do companies that play this game really have everything to gain and nothing to lose? Does a bright green label hide something darker underneath?
The seven sins of greenwashing
The mission of the American environmental marketing agency Terra Choice is to help businesses engage in sustainable development. In 2010, it published a report decrying all forms of greenwashing. Without directly accusing any specific companies, it clearly describes all types of greenwashing, summarized in seven “sins”:
- The sin of the hidden trade-off: A claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
- The sin of no proof: An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
- The sin of vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
- The sin of irrelevance: An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
- The sin of the lesser of two evils: A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
- The sin of fibbing: Environmental claims that are simply false.
- The sin of worshipping false labels: A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.
Many leading greenwashers appearing in this ranking have experienced spectacular declines—sometimes years later—due to their environmental abuses. There is hope, however: few have come out unscathed, having soiled their corporate reputation or even compromised their future. As consumers, we must be ever-vigilant even though it can be confusing at times. To learn more about buying green, please read this blog: Is buying green more expensive?
1Définitions marketing, 2010 (in French only)