Greenwashing

Public awareness of humanity’s impact on the global environment is at an all time high.  Organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are no longer fringe organizations run by ‘hippies’.  The Natural Resources Defense Council has an $87 million war chest which it wields to curb global warming and create clean energy sources, 85% of that money coming from 1.3 million members.  Senators and Congressmen everyday run for or against certain environmental reforms and nation states meet regularly to discuss emissions standards, with China committing to a 40% reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2020.  And President Obama is attending the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen.

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There aren’t too many heads in the sand anymore.  And while this awareness represents fruition of a decades long effort by scientists and environmentalists to reach the public at large, for some, it’s an opportunity to make a quick buck, or worse, a PR opportunity to make dubious claims about a company or product’s environmental virtues.

According to Greenpeace’s site Greenwashing is:

Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.  With lots of money to be made, more and more companies are turning to greenwashing.  In the 1960’s Madison Avenue labeled such activity as ecopornography as “oil, chemical, and automobile corporations, along with industrial associations and utilities, were spending nearly $1 billion a year,” according to a Corpwatch article describing the history of greenwashing.  Who knows how much is spent today?

The Sins of Greenwashing, produced by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing comapny,  lists the seven sins of greenwashing, among other things.  In their 2009 Greenwashing report, 98% of the 2219 products surveyed in North America committed at least one of the sins of greenwashing and the total number of ‘green’ products in stores increased by 79% over 2007 and 2008.  Kids comsetic and cleaning products were where the most claims were made.

As ads and advertisers get more sophisticated and the appeal for green products grows, consumers must remain ever-vigilant for greenwashing.  “Follow the money”, states the Wikipedia article on greenwashing.  After all, that’s what it’s all about.  Find out which politicians these companies donate to, who they have trade associations with and what skeletons are in the closet.

Standards for what is or is not green, organic or sustainable aren’t in many cases codified.  And sometimes only the minimal amount of ‘green’ needs to be done to qualify for one of these labels.  Buy green, but carry with you a healthy dose of caveat emptor, buyer beware.

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