Beware of Greenwashing: How to Assess Environmental Claims
by Scot Case
Growing demand has led many manufacturers to find cost-effective ways of improving their environmental performance and the environmental performance of their offerings. As a result, safer cleaning products are available, as are computers, copiers, and other office equipment without hazardous components. Cars are more efficient. Fewer trees are being cut to make paper. Less-polluting energy sources are increasingly available too.
Unfortunately, though, some manufacturers have resorted to creative advertising to compete in a market that demands “green” products.
Greenwashing—the practice of inflating the environmental benefits offered by a company or its products—appears to be growing, and purchasers are learning that they must carefully examine all environmental claims
A Brief History of Greenwashing
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when professional purchasers and individual consumers first became interested in buying green products, the following kinds of claims began appearing on goods of various kinds:
made with nontoxic ingredients
Manufacturers were using these terms indiscriminately and without any attempt to define their meaning. Consumers were rightly confused.
Following numerous consumer complaints, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission began investigating. After it had identified a variety of deceptive advertising practices—including manufacturers making unsubstantiated environmental claims and misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of their products—the FTC issued Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims in 1992. They were revised and updated in 1998.
The FTC guidelines require manufacturers to provide specific details explaining any environmental claim without overstating an environmental attribute or benefit. According to the guidelines, generic claims of “environmental preferability,” “environmentally friendly,” or “earth-smart” are to be avoided because they do not provide purchasers with any specific information that can be used to compare products. Such claims are unacceptable without an accompanying explanation detailing the specific environmental requirements necessary to justify the claim.
After the FTC published its guidelines, the most egregious greenwashing claims, including the use of terms such as “essentially nontoxic” and “environmentally safe,” began to decrease. Manufacturers became much more selective and accurate with many of their environmental claims.
But greenwashing did not completely disappear. In fact, as demand for more environmentally preferable products rises, greenwashing appears to be reemerging as an important concern for purchasers and other supply-chain professionals.
Avoiding the Greenwashing Traps
The big challenge is determining which environmental claims are meaningful and relevant and which ones to avoid, and the most powerful tool for meeting this challenge is the power to ask good questions.
When you are presented with an environmental claim about a product or service, use the following questions to explore its accuracy and relevancy.
• What type of environmental claim is being made? Is the manufacturer making a claim about a single environmental attribute such as energy efficiency or recycled content, or is it making a broader claim that the product meets an environmental leadership standard?
Environmental leadership standards such as EcoLogo (which my company manages) and Green Seal examine all the environmental impacts of a product category along with the products currently available in the market when developing a standard.
Leadership standards generally are designed so that only the top 20 percent of products in a category can meet them. This allows sufficient competition within the leadership category to help keep prices competitive while still being protective of human health and the environment.
• Is a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol available for review? If a manufacturer cannot provide a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol, the claim may be only a marketing ploy. If it does provide a copy of the standard, review it carefully to see whether it references appropriate national or international environmental and performance standards.
Standard and testing protocols should be meaningful and verifiable. Good standards and protocols are designed so that anyone can understand them and know how to evaluate products against them.
They should also be designed to ensure consistent evaluation results, so that different reviewers are likely to reach the same conclusion about whether a product meets the standard or not.
• How was the environmental standard or testing protocol developed? It is preferable that standards and testing protocols be developed in an open, public, transparent process similar to the way ANSI, ASTM, or other public standards are developed. The standard-setting organization should make records of the standard-development process available for review.
In addition, multiattribute environmental-leadership standards should be based on human health and environmental considerations throughout the lifecycle of a product from raw material extraction through manufacture, use, and ultimate disposal. The lifecycle stages considered and covered by the standard should be explicitly stated.
• Who developed the environmental standard or testing protocol? The most trusted standards are those developed in a consensus-based process by broad stakeholder groups, rather than by an individual manufacturer or trade association.
• What process is used to verify that products actually meet the standard or pass the testing requirements? A variety of procedures can verify that a product meets a standard. The more rigorous procedures can be more expensive for the manufacturer but provide a greater degree of assurance. They include:
Self-certification: Individual companies certify that their products meet the environmental standard.
Self-certification with random audits: Individual companies certify their products, but the standard-setting organization conducts random audits to ensure compliance.
Independent third-party certification: An independent organization verifies that the products meet the standard based on information provided by the manufacturer.
Independent third-party certification with onsite audits: An independent organization verifies that the products meet the standards based on information provided by the manufacturer and after an onsite visit to verify the accuracy of the information the manufacturer provided.
It is important to note that a stringent verification process is relatively meaningless if the standard itself is not meaningful.
Frequently Cited Environmental Standards
Given the growing uncertainty associated with the rising number of environmental claims, purchasing professionals are increasingly relying on a few well-respected environmental standards.
Based on a review of recent contracts, Energy Star is the most frequently cited single-attribute program. EcoLogo and Green Seal are the most frequently cited multiple-attribute programs.
Some of the most frequently cited environmental standards include:
Chlorine Free Products Association (chlorinefreeproducts.org). CFPA certifies paper and tissue products meeting its standard.
EcoLogo (ecologo.org). EcoLogo is North America’s oldest and most widely known environmental leadership standard. The EcoLogo Web site includes more than 140 environmental standards and more than 3,000 certified products. Purchasers are using the site to research or develop purchasing specifications and to put together potential bidder lists.
Energy Star Program (energystar.gov). The U.S. federal government’s Energy Star program establishes energy-efficiency criteria for a wide variety of products in more than 40 product categories. The site includes a listing of all products meeting the efficiency requirements, recommended purchasing specifications, and training resources.
EPEAT (epeat.net). EPEAT identifies more environmentally preferable computer desktops, laptops, and monitors. Its registry currently includes more than 500 products from 18 manufacturers.
Forest Stewardship Council (fscus.org). The Forest Stewardship Council certifies wood products obtained from sustainably harvested forests. It also certifies environmentally preferable papers.
Green-e (green-e.org). Green-e certifies sources of renewable electricity and renewable energy credits generated from clean energy sources such as wind, solar, or small-scale hydroelectric. It also certifies products that were manufactured in facilities using renewable energy.
Green Guard (greenguard.org). Green Guard focuses exclusively on indoor air quality issues. Its Web site includes certified products in more than 15 different categories; many focus on building materials and interiors.
Green Seal (greenseal.org). The Green Seal Web site includes detailed environmental standards for dozens of commodities. It also includes a list of all of the Green Seal–certified products, with links to the manufacturers. Purchasers are using the site to research or develop purchasing specifications and to put together potential bidder lists.
By relying on legitimate environmental standards and certification organizations and asking appropriate questions, you can ensure that you are buying the highest quality green goods.
Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing issues for 15 years and has consulted with the world’s largest purchasers and the world’s largest companies. He is currently vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which manages the EcoLogo program. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
The Six Sins
A study of modern greenwashing practices identifies the following six greenwashing “sins”:
1. Sin of fibbing. While this is rare, some manufacturers have claimed that their products meet the environmental standards developed by EcoLogo or Green Seal when it is clear they do not.
The EcoLogo program has a fraud advisory section on its Web site warning purchasers about misuses of the EcoLogo certification mark. (See environmentalchoice.com/English/ECP%20Home.)
2. Sin of unsubstantiated claims. Also known as the sin of “Just trust us,” this one involves manufacturers that are unable to provide proof of their environmental claims and that use words like “green” or “eco” in their corporate or product names and hope no one asks for details.
All environmental claims should be verified by an independent certifying body or auditor, or the manufacturer should be willing and able to provide the necessary documentation to prove a claim when it is requested. Purchasers should be able to easily verify the recycled content of a product or to learn whether it contains any ingredients of concern.
3. Sin of irrelevance. Some manufacturers provide factually correct environmental assessments that are no longer relevant. For example, many aerosol products continue to make “CFC-free” claims even though CFCs have been banned in these products since 1978. These accurate but irrelevant environmental claims can confuse even savvy purchasing professionals.
4. Sin of the hidden tradeoff. Many products come with bold claims about a single environmental attribute, which can lead purchasers to mistakenly believe that it is the only environmental attribute that matters in this context.
A cleaning product manufacturer, for example, is currently displaying an environmental certification mark documenting that its cleaning products are manufactured in a facility powered by renewable energy. It makes no claims, however, about the potential human health or environmental hazards of the product itself.
Review products with single-attribute claims carefully.
5. Sin of vagueness. A vague claim like “100% natural” can be misleading because some naturally occurring substances, such as arsenic and dioxin, can be very harmful to human health. Legitimate environmental claims are not vague.
6. Sin of relativism. A product can be the most environmentally preferable product in its class, but still be an inappropriate choice. The most fuel-efficient sport utility vehicle (SUV), for example, is still less preferable if a midsized passenger car will suffice.
The Six Sins of Greenwashing report is available online at terrachoice.com/greenwash.