What IS true green vs. greenwashing?

This label in a duct cleaning company ad caught my eye last week. Got any idea what the image means?

I do and now, you’ll know….

It’s a completely fake label.

These days, virtually everybody is overwhelmed by a bevy of products and services touted as ‘green’, from earth-friendly paint brushes and bamboo-derived countertops to non-toxic board and clean coal.

With a booming interest in the environment, companies are trying to cash in by promoting themselves and their products as green. In fact there are 73 percent more green products on the market today than in 2009 according to eco-marketing company TerraChoice.

“If we allow companies to get away with exaggeration, consumer skepticism will become cynicism, and they’ll stop choosing green products at all,” said Scott McDougall, chief executive of TerraChoice.

Lack of a universal definition of what a ‘green’ building product is, national, even international manufacturers created various – and sometimes competing – green product directories, labels, certifications and other evaluation systems to help verify green product claims.

But, here’s where the truth goes to Wonderland Dorothy. We call this “greenwashing”.

Greenwashing is like ‘whitewashing’, a coordinated effort to hide unpleasant facts, but with an environmental slant.

Some claims are just false. See label above. Another common example are products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.

Some claims distract from the greater eco impact of the product as a whole. Clean coal, could be a good example. It still causes harmful emissions and side effects when burned.

“Many don’t trust manufacturer motives, but they end up making a decision at the shelf based on the packaging, usually just buying the brands they’ve always bought,” said Suzanne Shelton, chief executive of the eco-marketing company Shelton Group.

Some claims are unimportant. For example non-toxic cleaner could be toxic in certain doses. Everything on our planet has the potential to harm. Look for specific references such as an ASTM standard or other ingredient details to guide you.

Some claims are poorly defined. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Consider arsenic, lead, mercury and formaldehyde. They all occur naturally, but don’t bring them home!

Labels help us, in large part; decide among products claiming to be green.

Nearly 40 percent of people said they rely on labels, according to a report from the Shelton Group.

Build That Green supports third-party certification. The market and Federal Trade Commission is currently revising its eco-advertising guidelines.  Meanwhile look for proof or reliable third-party certifications in product claims.

Some claims suggest that a product is ‘green’ based upon a few attributes but in fact, ignore the larger impact. For example, a natural boar-bristle paintbrush made with a plastic handle. The larger adverse impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and other manufacturing impacts are ignored on the advertising label.

The best way to avoid being duped, deceived or otherwise dumbfounded is to keep reading our blog! We try to bring you the truly green ideas, info and products for your home.

For instance, here’s a handy pocket guide to a dozen of the Best Green Label Products from the folks at TerraChoice.

Got any good examples (or horror stories) to share about green labels?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul June 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Terrachoice manages the EcoLogo “green” label that is on thousands of products. Thing is even EcoLogo certified products commit greenwashing sins. Therefore, Terrachoice needs to protect consumers from Terrachoice! How hypocritical of them to point the finger at other companies when they are “greenwashing” themselves? In the end, what we have learned is to never trust a marketing company that manages a “green” ecolabel. Terrachoice is promoting one of the biggest “greenwashing” marketing campaign and tricking consumers to buy into EcoLogo, a “greenwashing” label that brings millions of dollars to Terrachoice. company. Shame on Terrachoice!

Kim Van Borkulo June 13, 2011 at 10:35 am

It just shows the growing pains of this whole new industry and that no one size fits all! Yeah, it’s annoying to keep track of multiple labels but with the trend going toward reliable third party endorsements for particular industries, consumers have a more legitimate way of ‘shopping’ the competition.

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