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I Spy Eco-Spin: 5 Best Ways to Avoid Getting Greenwashed
Overnight, it seems, the universe of consumer products has “gone green” — all-natural bathroom cleaners, sustainable wood flooring, eco dry cleaning, etc. While most of us would love to believe that environmental consciousness has reached every manufacturer in America, we can’t help but suspect that a few firms are hoisting a faux–green flag, talking big while doing little to change their footprint.
As consumer interest in environmentalism has exploded, so has its paper-thin cousin: “greenwashing.” Greenwashing takes place when companies make claims of environmental stewardship that are out of step with their true actions, according to Mike Lawrence, executive vice president for corporate responsibility at branding agency Cone LLC in Boston.
We’re not seeing outright lies, Lawrence says, but more the intentional use of vague words and misleading packaging to boost sales.
Aside from being annoying, greenwashing clouds the media landscape, robbing authentic sustainable companies of the chance to get their stories heard. “Every dollar you spend is a vote toward the kind of world you want to see,” says Marti Matsch, communications director of Boulder, Colo.–based Eco-Cycle. “Greenwashing makes it hard to see those choices clearly.”
Here are five ways to help consumers scrape off the green paint:
1. Demand precision, please
It’s perfectly legal for advertising copywriters to use puffery, promotional statements that aren’t expected to be taken seriously. A diner can claim the “world’s best cup of coffee,” and a movie can call itself “the summer’s top thriller.”
But environmental advertising should be different. “It requires a connectivity to the facts that is higher than other forms of advertising,” Lawrence says. “Many marketers don’t get that, so you end up with ads that intentionally mislead.”
The result is packaging that shouts nonsense phrases such as “in harmony with nature,” “all-natural,” “chemical-free” and “eco-friendly,” to name a few.
Such phrases are meaningless, says marketing firm TerraChoice in its report on the sins of greenwashing. What does “in harmony with nature” really mean, anyway? As for all-natural, many nasty substances occur naturally, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
Worse, some words actually cover up environmental misdeeds. Matsch’s pet peeve is the slogan “biodegradable”; she notes that any organic substance — biodegradable or not — thrown into a landfill produces methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. (Biodegradable products/packaging may be more meaningful if you have a compost bin or pickup service.)
So instead of slippery ad-speak, look for claims backed up with facts such as percentages of post-consumer recycled content, specific manufacturing processes and details of community giving or social responsibility programs.
Don’t forget to read the label, adds Green, Greener, Greenest author Lori Bongiorno. In one instance, she found that a “fragrance-free” product contained a perfume to mask its odor. She’s also found shampoos billed as lavender-scented that contained none of the plant’s extract. “Make sure the list of ingredients matches the claim,” she says.
2. Look for third-party seals or certification
Without a degree in chemistry, how can you read a label or package and be certain of its claim?
Enter third-party verification. For the past decade, nonprofits and government entities have developed scientific, credible standards such as USDA Organic and country of origin (COOL) labeling. The most trustworthy products display these logos proudly.
For household goods, Bongiorno likes Energy Star, denoting energy-efficient appliances and building products; WaterSense, promoting water-efficient bathroom fixtures; and Forest Stewardship Council–certified, which guarantees that the wood used for manufacturing and printing comes from well-managed forests. An emerging certifier is Green Seal, which checks out industrial and household cleaners, paints, and materials used in hotel rooms.
For coffee, fruit and vegetables, she recommends looking for Fair Trade certified products to guarantee that strict economic, social and environmental criteria were met in the foodstuff’s production.
But one recognizable label has led to confusion, Matsch warns: the triangle-shaped "chasing arrows" recycling symbol on plastic containers. Its mere presence on a box, jug or toy doesn’t mean you can recycle the product. Instead, the number inside the moebius indicates a type of plastic resin. That number must match your local recycler’s guide in order for the product to go curbside.
A final note: third-party standards are proliferating, as many trade associations create industry-specific standards. To figure out what they all mean, visit this guide developed by Consumer Reports: http://www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels
3. Expect a little humility and authenticity — they go a long way
We all could use less energy, consume less harmful products and give back more to our communities. The best companies acknowledge that sustainability is a journey, not a goal. Instead they point to small, specific steps that they’re taking — or that you can take — to make a difference.
“Humility is critical, but it is rare,” says Lawrence. “Advertisers can’t stand to spend money being humble.”
But some companies do make the effort. One laundry products manufacturer has been using advertising to ask consumers to wash at lower temperatures; and many cleaning product companies have introduced concentrated products in smaller bottles to lower transportation fuel use and plastic consumption. No, it won’t reverse climate change, but it’s a step.
Likewise, Lawrence recommends seeking companies with an authentic story to tell, either about their family-fun business, local cooperative or organic farming practices.
“If it doesn’t feel real,” he says, “it probably isn’t.”
4. Look for take-back programs
Most of us are cautious about buying toys in gigantic boxes or slivers of software in bubble wrap and styrofoam casing. Some of us shun tomatoes in plastic casing (preferring them loose) or at least bring our own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store.
We buy in bulk and in concentrate, download software and songs, and borrow books from the library. And we’re thoughtful about what we buy: “I really ask myself, what is it about this product that is sustainable?” says Bongiorno. “Is it quality, is it durable, will it last?”
It’s all part of what’s called pre-cycling — avoiding unnecessary purchasing and packaging in the first place.
But sometimes we need something new — be it a digital television or running shoes — and we’re left wondering how to dispose with the old. A quick online search can lead you to companies that take back products they've put on the market, illustrating their commitment to cleaning up the waste they produce. The websites takebackmytv.com, computertakeback.com and www.pprc.org point to where consumers can take back electronics. And the National Recycling Coalition and Earth911 offer helpful directories of other industry take-back programs — as well as recycling dropoff centers for hard-to-recycle materials including electronics.
5. Buy local
Studies estimate that most produce travels about 1,500 miles from farm to grocery store. That’s a lot of transportation fuel and carbon emissions — plus, food loses nutrients and flavor in transport.
Buying local fruits and veggies helps support your local economy. When you support a nearby farm, you are also helping to preserve nearby open space, boost jobs and provide habitat for local wildlife. You should also look for local labels on milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, bread and honey.
At a farmers’ market, you can be sure that food comes from the surrounding region. But you can also buy local in the grocery store, since most produce bears the label of the state or county of origin. If you’re unsure where something comes from, just ask!