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05

JUN 2009

The Seven Sins of 'Greenwashing'

“Greenwashing” is an increasingly common occurrence as consumers seek products that are less environmentally harmful. PR practitioners and marketers are too willing, it seems, to sacrifice truth and accuracy to make the sale.

For instance, the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami just last month was awarded LEED certification, even though it was built a decade ago. The reason it qualified for an environmental certification that didn’t even exist in 1999 is because of all the energy-efficiency measures built into the facility, not for environmental, but for economic reasons. The arena’s spokesman explained that the certification was important because companies want to know they are holding their event in an environmentally friendly venue.

Now that’s a greenwash if ever there was one.

In a recent study, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that fully 98 percent of the products that advertise as being environmentally friendly in fact commit one or more of the TerraChoice’s Seven Sins of Greenwashing.

In response to consumers demanding more “green” products, manufacturers have boosted the availability of such products between 40 percent and 174 percent in certain segments across the U.S. and Canada. But the study found that consumers are still being duped into buying products they think have less environmentally impact than they indeed do.

Here is TerraChoice’s list of the seven sins manufacturers regularly commit:

1. The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off occurs when one environmental issue is emphasized at the expense of potentially more serious concerns. In other words, when marketing hides a trade-off between environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally preferable just because it comes from a sustainably harvested forest.
2. The Sin of No Proof happens when environmental assertions are not backed up by evidence or third-party certification. One common example is facial tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any supporting details.
3. The Sin of Vagueness occurs when a marketing claim is so lacking in specifics it becomes meaningless. ‘”All-natural” is an example of this. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring — and poisonous. “All natural” isn’t necessarily “green.”
4. The Sin of Worshiping False Labels is when marketers create a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green certification process. One example of this sin is a brand of aluminum foil with certification-like images that show the name of the company’s own in-house environmental program for which there is no explanation.
5. The Sin of Irrelevance arises when an environmental issue unrelated to the product is emphasized. One example is the claim that a product is “CFC-free,” since CFCs are banned by law.
6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils occurs when an environmental claim makes consumers feel green about a product category that is itself lacking in environmental benefits. Organic cigarettes are an example of this phenomenon.
7. The Sin of Fibbing is when environmental claims are outright false. One common example is products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified.

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