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Greenwashing: Misunderstanding disinformation

The word first appeared in Mother Jones magazine in the early '90s in an article about a dangerous and counter productive practice called Greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a term that is used to describe the act of purposefully misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company, or the environmental benefits of a product or service. The term Green Sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to appear as if they're adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

The term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices. This is often portrayed by changing the name or label of a product to give the feeling of nature, something absurd like putting an image of a forest on a bottle of harmful chemicals.

A commonly cited example of greenwashing is the Clear Skies Initiative, which environmentalists have argued actually weakens air pollution laws. Another good example of greenwashing is companies that use the Energy Star seal on outdoor products, when the Energy Star seal was designed to approve indoor products only.

A major attempt to stem greenwashing is underway in Norway. Norway's consumer ombudsman targeted automakers who claimed that their cars are "green", "clean" or "environmentally friendly" with some of the world's strictest advertising guidelines. Consumer Ombudsman official Bente Oeverli said: "Cars cannot do anything good for the environment except less damage than others." Manufacturers risk fines if they fail to drop the buzzwords. Oeverli said she did not know of other countries going so far in cracking down on cars and the environment. Norway's efforts to reduce greenwashing in their country actively continue to this very day, as sadly, on television screens in North America, giant SUV's are driving through harmoniously still forests while animals sing joyful songs in the backseat.

In December 2007, an environmental marketing company called TerraChoice gained national press coverage for releasing a study called "The Six Sins of Greenwashing," which found that 99% of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed for the study were guilty of greenwashing. According to the study, the six sins of greenwashing are:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: e.g. "Energy-efficient" electronics that contain hazardous materials. 998 products and 57% of all environmental claims committed this Sin.

  • Sin of No Proof: e.g. Shampoos claiming to be "certified organic," but with no verifiable certification. 454 products and 26% of environmental claims committed this Sin.

  • Sin of Vagueness: e.g. Products claiming to be 100% natural when many naturally occurring substances are hazardous, like arsenic and formaldehyde. Seen in 196 products or 11% of environmental claims.

  • Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. This Sin was seen in 78 products and 4% of environmental claims.

  • Sin of Fibbing: e.g. Products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. Found in 10 products or less than 1% of environmental claims.

  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or "environmentally friendly" pesticides. This occurred in 17 products or 1% of environmental claims.
  • A stand must be taken against this practice. Simply labeling oneself as green without performing the necessary tasks is unacceptable. A true revision of policy is required in order to be Environmentally Responsible. The purpose is to reduce, recycle and reuse, not to deceive the consumer into buying more. In the lighting industry a good set of guidelines can be summed up as follows: Reduce material inputs, reduce maintenance costs, reduce energy consumption, reduce light pollution, increase light efficiency, increase design life and increase recyclability.

    In business as in life, honesty truly is the best policy.

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