Greenwashing or Clear Communication?
Terra Choice, a US Green Marketing company has released a ‘green paper’ entitled the 6 Deadly Sins of Greenwashing. It details the results of a survey of over a thousand products with green claims – only one was regarded by the authors as being robust. The graph below shows how the company categorised the offenders against the six sins they identified:
1. Hidden Trade-off – the claim only covered one item of the product’s lifecycle impact;
2. No Proof;
3. Vagueness – eg “non-toxic”;
4. Irrelevance – eg being CFC free when CFCs have been banned for over a decade;
5. Lesser of Two Evils – greening a ‘bad’ product eg “organic cigarettes”;
For example, the biggest sin, ‘Hidden Trade-off’ suggests that single-subject eco-labels are taboo. Yet it is these labels that have proved the most popular with the public. The EU energy label (right) on white goods has been responsible for a huge shift in consumer preferences and it is so successful, it is being used for cars, windows and even aircraft. Why is it successful? It is clear, objective and people understand it. Conversely, the more comprehensive EU Eco-label is widely ignored.
One person’s ‘vagueness’ is another person’s clearness. More people understand ‘non-toxic’ than know what BFR or LD50 mean. I’d tend to lump this one in with ‘no-proof’ myself.
Likewise, I’m not sure about the “lesser of two evils”. People laugh when they hear the army is interested in lead-free bullets, but most rounds are fired in training, often in areas of great ecological importance, so it is important not to scatter toxic material around. If someone is going to kill themselves smoking, then I’d rather they did it with tobacco that hasn’t been grown using toxic chemicals.
If you cut these elements out of the graph above, then relatively few products fail the tests – and only one percent were actively found to be fibbing. I’ve been harsh on Terra Choice, but many media commentators do the same thing – poke holes in the genuine efforts of others to do the right thing and communicate it to their customers. Having said that, every time the Advertising Standards Agency rap the knuckles of a genuine Greenwasher, I punch the air and shout “Yes!”.