Product manufacturers and service providers realize there is a portion of the public willing to pay more for "Green" products and services. Some business are honest and will make a product that is better for the environment and society (i.e. more sustainable), while there are many others willing to simply label their product as "green" just so they can try and sell more of it. The latter businesses are practicing "Greenwashing"; which is to say they are dressing up their normal product or service with snazzier packaging and marketing in hopes to fooling people to buying more of it because they say it is "green".
Greenpeace has a nice website set up called StopGreenwash which highlights companies that practice greenwashing and teaches people how to spot greenwashing. From their section on Introduction to Greenwashing:
Some businesses are genuinely committed to making the world a better, greener place. But for far too many others, environmentalism is little more than a convenient slogan. Buy our products, they say, and you will end global warming, improve air quality, and save the oceans. At best, such statements stretch the truth; at worst, they help conceal corporate behavior that is environmentally harmful by any standard.
Sourcewatch.org has a nice section on greenwashing, and they list the following tips on how to spot companies that may be practicing greenwashing:
- Follow the Money Trail: many companies are donors to political parties, think tanks and other groups in the community. Few companies actually disclose in their annual reports exactly whom they are donating to, even though it is shareholders money. Ask about all their donations, not just those they boast about in glossy documents such as the corporate social responsibility reports.
- Follow the membership trail: Many companies boast about the virtues of their environmental policy and performance but hide their anti-environmental activism behind the banner of an industry association to which they belong. Find out what industry association companies are members of and check and see what their policies are. Assume that all individual companies support the trade associations policy positions until such time as they publicly state that they don't agree with them or they resign. (See the article on the third party technique, a central plank in most PR campaigns).
- Follow the paper trail: Most companies, or their trade associations, will make submissions to government and other inquiries on a wide range of issues. Often these submissions will be posted to a website. They will also send lots of letters to politicians and government agencies, which can be accessed by Freedom of Information Act searches. Ask about submissions made by the company and their lobbying on issues you are interested in. You will probably discover that instead of lobbying for tougher environmental standards, they are busy trying to weaken the ones that exist.
- Look for skeletons in the company's closet: Every company has major problems that it doesn't want the public and regulators to know about. Some companies include information in the annual reports about problems that have been in the news in the last year. More often, there will have been problems, occasionally reported in the media, which they don't want to tell shareholders about. Check for information on the company with watchdog groups and in the media and compare that with what they disclose.
- Test for access to information: Many companies will make lofty claims about their commitment to transparency and providing information to 'stakeholders'. Don't just take them at their word. In their reports they will probably refer to environmental impact statements, reviews, audits, monitoring data and other information. If it relates to an issue you are interested in, ask to see it. And remember that 'commercially confidential' is just corporate speak for 'no'.
- Test for international consistency: Most companies will operate to different standards in other countries. Check and see whether their operating standards and procedures are consistent or whether they opt for lower standards where they think they can get away with it.
- Check how they handle their critics: Some companies go to extraordinary lengths to try and silence their critics. This can involve everything from legal threats (see the article on SLAPPs) to funding and collaborating with police and military forces.
- Test for consistency over time: It is common for a company to launch a policy or initiative and then starve it of funds. Or a company will make promises when they are under public pressure but never implement them when the spotlight fades.
One way for consumers to make sure a product they're buying hasn't been "greenwashed" is to look for a UL Environment certification. UL environment offers energy efficiency and sustainable product certification along with environmental claims certification. It's easy for a company to say "my product cuts your energy consumption", it's a lot harder for them to prove it!
The bottom line: Don't take a company's claims that their offering is "green" at face value. Do a little research and make sure the company walks the walk. To be honest, there are very few companies out there that go out of their way to produce a more sustainable product or service because it is the right thing to do. Most companies create a product, and then figure out how they can somehow spin the marketing to make it appear green. Next time you hear a business mention "green", make sure to ask the right questions so you know they are living up to their claims and you are giving your money to a company that has real sustainable values.
If you see companies practicing greenwashing, send them to email@example.com so we can warn others!