Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Have You Been Greenwashed?

Do you ever have the experience of buying something and wondering if you’ve been “greenwashed?” The term refers to companies that market a product as “green” when in reality it’s actually not so green. Companies can be nimble creatures when it comes to finding ways to make more money from the same product. As the public becomes increasingly aware of the need for environmentally friendly products, it’s fairly easy for an adept marketing department to slap an “all natural” or “earth friendly” claim on the same product they’ve been selling for years.

As in the claim “compostable.” Without a working definition, you could almost say everything is compostable. It might take a million years if it’s Styrofoam or a little less if it’s plastic. My discover card is compostable. When I needed a new card a few years back, I went online to choose my own personalized card. Of the many, many options, one featured polar bears and claimed to be “compostable”. In my fervor to be “green” I thought – great! I want a compostable card! Whenever a store clerk commented on my cute polar bears, I’d tell her, “I could really care less about polar bears but the card is compostable!”

In reality, my compostable card will never be composted (although the numbers are wearing off rather quickly). How likely is it that I will toss a credit card with a rather high lending limit into my compost pile when it expires? Seems like a dangerous practice. I may test out the theory when the current card expires in a controlled composting environment. Another fun project for my skeptical hubby! I don’t recall any claims as to the length of time it would take to compost my credit card when I selected it. And what’s even more curious is that when I went on the discover site today to hunt down that information, the polar bears were still available, but no longer labeled “compostable.” Hmmm.

Maybe the Greenwashing Index got to them. This index was developed by the University of Oregon and
evaluates claims based on five criteria – misleading words, misleading graphics, vague claims that aren’t provable, overstated greenness, or important information left out. You, as a consumer, can rate products that you encounter on the site and see the rating of the products others have evaluated.

So how do you know if you’ve been greenwashed? For me, it mostly comes down to my gut. I find it hard to believe that any product made by Proctor and Gamble will ever be “green”. The company markets too many toxic products to counter any “green” effort that could be made. If I’m buying a detergent or similar product, I’m going to go with a company founded on green principles like Ecover or Seventh Generation. Once again, buying locally made and sourced products gives you the opportunity to know the integrity of the companies with which you do business.

There are a few agencies out there that certify “greenness” in one way or another, but you should also be aware that there are plenty of “industry sponsored” agencies that certify environmentally friendly claims. So sometimes what looks like the real deal is actually a bunch of woo-ha-ha. Here are a few legit certifications:

The most important thing you can do is hold the companies you buy products from to their claims. Investigate the product and the company. If it says “made from recycled materials”, check the label for a number – what percentage is from recycled materials? If the company is serious about their greenness they will have details. Claims like “eco safe” are tossed around without any particulars as to what makes the product eco safe. If there are no facts backing up the claims, be very skeptical.

If you’re serious about being an eco-friendly consumer, it may require a little effort on your part to be certain you haven’t been greenwashed. I’m fairly certain that I was greenwashed when it comes to my credit card. But every time I pull out my polar bears, I’m reminded to know what I’m buying and who I’m buying from lest I become a victim once again of greenwashing.

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