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  Greenwashing: A Dirty Job?   Greenwashing: A Dirty Job?  Wendy Jedlicka  
Greenwashing: A Dirty Job? In fact, greenwashing is the latest incarnation of whitewashing. According to a 2007 report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, an overwhelming majority of environmental marketing claims in North America are inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated.

Using metrics from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), TerraChoice concluded that all but one of the claims, out of more than 1000 products reviewed, raised red flags. Ranging from cleaning and personal care products to televisions and printers, the report concluded that the claims in question are "…either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."

It is very possible a few key greenwashers could make things more difficult for true green producers by putting a general strain on consumer trust. So it is no surprise that eco-practitioners project there is a very real danger that companies being rewarded for greenwashing will squeeze out those who are making genuinely innovative products. But companies that focus on short-term gains from flimsy eco-efforts are gambling with the long-term health of their brands. Eco-ness is a ratchet, not a flywheel. Progress is incremental. Each step a company makes in a more eco/green/sustainable direction—even with the most shallow of intentions—narrows options for what they can "get away with" in the future.

As attitudes change, and sustainability becomes part of everyday life, formal systems will fall into place to help assure those who make claims are held accountable for them. Around the world, environmental marketing claim guidelines are becoming law, with stiff penalties for the abusers. In today’s global economy, any company wanting to sell outside its home market needs to adhere to the most stringent of trading partners’ laws and apply that to all markets, or run the risk of being exposed for “doing less” at home.

Currently in the US, adherence to the Federal Trade Commission's Environmental Marketing Claims Guidelines are voluntary. Even so, at some point these guidelines could easily become mandate, as a similar version has in Europe. Farsighted companies, as well as firms selling abroad, have already begun to adopt the FTC Guidelines as mandate in anticipation of any change, as well as to better serve more claim-integrity attentive markets abroad.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Environmental Marketing Claims Guidelines were issued in 1992 and updated in 1998, the 2007 TerraChoice report indicated an overwhelming majority of environmental marketing claims in North America violated these guidelines. Why? Are people really trying to skirt the system? Do they feel the claims have no real meaning and are just buzzwords? Did they, intentionally or unintentionally, not do their homework before making a claim? Or did they simply conclude, “They’re voluntary, so why bother?" Or even, "Guidelines? What guidelines?”

As consumers became increasingly concerned about greenwashing, the FTC began the process to overhaul its voluntary environmental marketing guidelines. It started by focusing on commonly used eco-marketing buzzwords which have no definitions under the 1998 guidelines—carbon offsets, renewable energy, and sustainable, for example. "We want to make sure the guides reflect today's marketplace, consumer perceptions, and current science and technology," said Janice Podoll Frankle, a lawyer at the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, in a recent BusinessWeek article.

Meanwhile, in spite of the US’s lack of official participation in the Kyoto Protocol, Americans spent more than US$ 54 million on offsets last year alone, proving with their actions and pocketbooks that climate issues are a very serious concern, even without government support. So companies must pay attention and realize their consumers are highly educated and personally invested in environmental reform.

“Do you really dare put your head above the parapet by touting your greenness and attract very knowledgeable consumers who are going to crawl all over your business … and Greenpeace and every other environmental group you can think of?” Mike Longhurst, senior VP at McCann Erickson, London, said in a recent AdAge article. “If consumers think they can catch you telling a half-truth, they will."

Before your company begins its next project, do some research to see what’s changing not only in your own community or country, but in other markets as well. Even if there aren’t clear guidelines yet, chances are there will be soon. A little preemptive caution is a small investment to maintain a strong—and trusted—brand.

Here are some great resources to get you started...

Terra Choice: Six Sins of Greenwashing

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
e.g. Paper (including household tissue, paper towel and copy paper): “Okay, this product comes from a sustainably harvested forest, but what are the impacts of its milling and transportation? Is the manufacturer also trying to reduce those impacts?”

Emphasizing one environmental issue isn’t a problem (indeed, it often makes for better communications). The problem arises when hiding a trade-off between environmental issues.

Sin of No Proof
e.g. Personal care products (such as shampoos and conditioners) that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no evidence or certification of this claim. Company websites, third-party certifiers, and toll-free phone numbers are easy and effective means of delivering proof.

Sin of Vagueness
e.g. Garden insecticides promoted as “chemical-free.” In fact, nothing is free of chemicals.

Water is a chemical. All plants, animals, and humans are made of chemicals, as are all of our products. If the marketing claim doesn’t explain itself (“here’s what we mean by ‘eco’ …”), the claim is vague and meaningless. Similarly, watch for other popular vague green terms: “non-toxic,” “all-natural,” “environmentally-friendly,” and “earth-friendly.”

Sin of Irrelevance
e.g. CFC-free oven cleaners, CFC-free shaving gels, CFC-free window cleaners, CFC-free disinfectants.

Could all of the other products in this category make the same claim? The most common example is easy to detect: Don’t be impressed by CFC-free! Ask if the claim is important and relevant to the product. (If a light bulb claimed water efficiency benefits you should be suspicious.) Comparison-shop (and ask the competitive vendors).

Sin of Fibbing
e.g. Shampoos that claim to be “certified organic,” but for which our research could find no such certification.

When I check up on it, is the claim true? The most frequent examples in this study were false uses of third-party certifications. Thankfully, these are easy to confirm. Legitimate third-party certifiers—EcoLogoCM, Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Green Guard, and Green Seal, for example,—all maintain publicly available lists of certified products. Some even maintain fraud advisories for products that are falsely claiming certification.

Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils
e.g. Organic tobacco. “Green” insecticides and herbicides.

Is the claim trying to make consumers feel "green" about a product category that is of questionable environmental benefit? Consumers concerned about the pollution associated with cigarettes would be better served by quitting smoking than by buying organic cigarettes. Similarly, consumers concerned about the human health and environmental risks of excessive use of lawn chemicals might create a bigger environmental benefit by reducing their use than by looking for greener alternatives.

Terra Choice: Six Sins of Greenwashing
Reprinted with permission
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc.


Federal Trade Commission workshop to examine the emerging market for carbon offsets (i.e., greenhouse gas emission reduction products) and renewable energy certificates, and related advertising claims.

Author's note:

In an article calling for verifiable clarity, one would logically expect to see the names of the eco-marketing claims violators—like doling out so many "worst dressed" trophies. But to what end? The eco-marketing claims in the US are voluntary, not mandatory. Calling out the offenders not only offers no additional clarity for understanding the ideas in the article, but exacerbates an already unfortunate reality. EVERYONE at this moment is scrambling to find their way. Unless a firm began their quest back during the first Earth Days in the 1970's, most companies today are waaaaay behind where society, and the planet, need them to be right now.

Today's eco-leaders are the ones that have a history of commitment to their message, and continuously seeking to address their impacts, as part of their core ethic. So for those new to eco the simple answer is, rather than simply slap on an eco-label like just another spot color or specialty varnish, use the opportunity for creating trust by actually being trustworthy. No one can address all eco-issues overnight, but they can do a few really well, and then make a genuine commitment to continue to address the rest (working towards ISO 14,000 certification is a great way to prove your efforts). For brand owners, allow me to give you an obvious piece of advice: Do your research and ensure that those who serve your brand are making claims that are credible and actually mean something. If those serving your brand are using eco capriciously—to add more sales bling to throw at your product, for example—just how seriously do you think they're taking the rest of the project?    



Wendy Jedlicka , CPP, is president of Jedlicka Design Ltd. ( a full service eco-packaging design firm helping other creative service firms and departments address packaging and sustainability issues for their clients. As a long time advocate for eco-design Ms. Jedlicka is a guiding member of the o2 Global Sustainable Design Network ( serving as USA Co-Coordinator ( and Upper Midwest Chapter chair ( Ms. Jedlicka is also contributing coordinator for Package Design Magazine's Sustainability Update. On the education side, she is program developer and faculty for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design's ground breaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program (

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Greenwashing: A Dirty Job?
 I think this whole thing is about to get very confusing for the average consumer and citizen of the world, as advertisers and advocacy groups bombard them with conflicting "This is green. No wait, this is green" messages. I mean, what's a person to think when they hear that a Prius has a larger carbon footprint than a Hummer? It reminds me of the great butter/margarine debates over the past two decades, when we were led to believe that butter was like shooting poison into your veins, only to find out later that margarine is worse, creating anxiety and momentary paralysis for people who just want to dress up their baked potatoes. At some point (as has happened with the food industry) someone is going to have to step in and regulate this bevy of information and establish common sense benchmarks that we can understand, embrace and live with. In the meantime, we'll just sift through it all and hope that we're doing "the right thing" in our purchases. 
Bill Baker, Chief Strategy Officer, Envisioning Storytelling - February 4, 2008
 The article mentions it, but your comment calls attention to it -- Certification is the key to prove trustworthiness. ISO 14,000 is a great avenue to pursue. "Getting away with" something because the laws haven't caught up with you yet has never worked for long. Would the guys at GE who thought dumping their PCBs in the Hudson feel so clever if they knew how much it was going to cost in both dollars and brand health to clean up that mess, in inflated dollars, decades later? Laws are good, but we need a shift in conscience. Hummer vs. Prius comment. Eco is like anything, there are no pat answers. Ask, who funded the study, and does it intuitively make sense? Now more than ever, Caveat Emptor."Closer inspection suggests that the report’s conclusions rely on....selective use and presentation of data, and a complete lack of peer review."Pacific Institute, Hummer vs. 
Wendy Jedlicka, National Co-coordinator, - February 5, 2008
 yes, not just another fad to exploit but another gimmicky positioning arena. Eco friendliness is the new chapter of fooling the consumers into buying something which has little chance of selling itself otherwise. NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS: Well whom are they tested on? Humans? Aliens may be? It seems these companies are trying to bring back the era of AREA 51! Nice try, I must say.NO ADDED MSG: Just another way of saying, yes there is MSG and its natural we have not added anymore of it!100 HERBAL: And if you buy it, congrats, u have joined the elite class of fools. Certificates are not the way, but education is, simple common sense and applications of it and these guys will be out of business very soon. 
kaushik sarkar, account manager, grey worldwide - February 7, 2008
 Great article Wendy,My fear is that we are going to see an explosion of green labels, ie. Clean Earth, Earth Friendly, and so forth, which serve to confuse and dilute consumer responsible choices. Disenfranchising the consumer is the greatest risk to the gains in popular environmental awareness over the last decade. Also related are the growing problems regarding credibility in the Carbon Offsets industry - this is very concerning to me both as an industry member and a consumer...You are right on the money with the ISO 14000 comment. Consumers are well served by companies buying into the labels already established by credible third parties, such as Energy Star, Organic, FSC.As concerned industry professionals, encouraging the consolidation standardization and simplicity of information allows the market to reinforce the progress made in this area and is the best approach for continued progress. 
Charles Austen Angell, CTO, Modernedge - February 7, 2008
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