Greenwashing – The Dirty Truth

Greenwashing is the practice of promoting the green attributes of a product to increase sales, even though that product may have not earned the touted green credentials.

Here are some of the ways we've seen companies wrap themselves in an environmental flag to gain market share.

Hidden trade-offs, lack of proof, vagueness, irrelevance, promoting the lesser of two evils or using false endorsements. Each of these techniques can fool us into buying not-so-green products.

Hidden Trade-offs
Hidden trade-offs are found in products that claim green traits while ignoring a negative environmental impact. Electronics are notorious for this, often claiming energy efficiency and even Energy Star ratings, but not disclosing the toxic substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium that these products contain. No wonder much of the danger posed by electronics happens at the time of disposal.

Poland Springs recently started touting the use of an "eco-shaped" bottle that certainly does use less plastic (estimated 30%) than regular plastic water bottles, but is still made of plastic and is still shipped all over the country using trucks and gasoline. When it comes to some of these products, you may just have to find the greenest on the market and accept that it isn't perfect.

Lesser of two evils
Have you ever seen 'environmentally friendly' pesticides advertised? In some cases these may still be petrochemical based or otherwise harmful to natural ecosystems. Like hidden trade-offs, some of these products will be unavoidable.

One company promoting a product that is the lesser of two evils is Monsanto, the makers of RoundUp®. They are promoting seeds that require little to no pesticide treatments, which sounds good, but still promotes monocultures and genetically modified food products. When you buy a product you should understand not only the specific item you are buying but the general positives and negatives of the category of product. Your best alternative may be to avoid the category altogether if you can.

Lack of Proof
Lack of proof sounds like it would be easy to sniff out, but claims of "certified organic" or "all natural" can sound pretty definitive. On further investigation you may find these to be empty claims. One of our favorite examples of this strategy is the "clean coal" ad campaign. While clean coal plants are under development, there is no proof that coal is clean or that these plants will ever be able to produce "clean" energy. Don't rely on labels and advertising claims to give you sound information about what you are buying.

Vagueness is one of those strategies that takes advantage of the consumer's desire to get products quickly. For example, the claim of being natural comes up often. Here are a few materials that are natural, but you wouldn't want them in your home - formaldehyde, mercury, arsenic, asbestos and heavy metals. Citrus Magic 100% Natural Dish Liquid claims to be natural (right in its name), but does explain the claim. In fact, it has been tested by third party laboratories and found to contain a carcinogenic contaminant.

Irrelevant claims
Irrelevant claims are those that can be made by every product in a given category so they don't really set a product apart. For example, heating and air conditioning companies may try to position their products as sustainable by touting that their products are CFC-free. That may sounds good, but that the fact is that CFCs were banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1987. So a claim of CFC-free is simply a redundant statement that they are following the laws. We found this blatant example from Whynter and their new "eco friendly" product line. (

False Certifications Part 1
It isn't very common, but some manufacturers will claim that they are certified by reputable organizations such as Energy Star or Green Seal when they aren't. The FTC recently exposed several companies, including Sami Designs, Mad Mod and Pure Bamboo for marketing rayon products as eco-friendly bamboo. If you are looking for products that are certified by a specific organization, your best approach is to search those websites for the list of products they provide.

False Certifications Part 2
This strategy uses non-existent or company-controlled certifications to bolster a product as green. We advise that before you buy products that are certified you make sure that the certification is awarded by an arm's length third party testing agency. For example, SC Johnson and Son Inc. have actually created their own GreenList™ certification used on their products. In recent months they have made attempts to market GreenList™ to other companies. It is possible that they have bona fide environmental standards for GreenList™ products. However, we consider all internal certifications to be marketing exercises rather than true certifications.

Promoting Company SustainabilityHave you seen television ads that promote a company's attitude toward sustainability? One of the most visible companies demonstrating this practice is SC Johnson & Son Inc. Recent commercials tout the company's use of landfill gases to power plants, but those same plants are producing toxic products such as Drano®, Raid® , and Windex®. These inevitably end up in our water treatment plants and water supplies. While we do think that companies of all sizes should be adopting sustainable practices, these partial measures do not change the environmental impact of using their products.

Doing the right thingWe aren't suggesting that you avoid every product that have a negative environmental impact. However, we do think it's worthwhile to point out these greenwashing practices in an effort to inform our readers.

Come join us in the community site to discuss issues of greenwashing and specific examples that you have seen in the marketplace.

If you are interested in learning more about the specific examples used in this article, please see the following references:

References – Hidden Trade Offs

References – Lesser of Two evils

References – Lack of proof:

References - Vagueness

References – Irrelevant claims

References – False certifications Part 1

References - False certifications Part 2