According to the independent watchdog organization, the Greenwashing Index (in partnership with the University of Oregon), "greenwashing" occurs when a company or organization spends time and money claiming to be "green" through advertising and marketing, rather than focusing on actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It's whitewashing, but with a green brush.
Automatically opting for the "eco" or "green" option may strike us immediately as a righteous move, but it's important not to get green paint splattered on your unhealthy or toxic product purchases.
So pass on the paint thinner and protect yourself and your family by understanding the six primary ways that companies commit greenwashing.
1. They have a singular focus.
Some companies make green claims by emphasizing one attribute of the product and ignoring everything else. For example, a sheet set may be labeled "eco-friendly" because it contains some bamboo in it, which is a renewable resource.
Yet this same sheet may also contain pesticide-intensive, nonorganic cotton. It may be colored with toxic dyes and treated with formaldehyde and other chemicals to prevent wrinkling, bacteria and fire. The sheet may have been produced in China and transported using mega-amounts of fossil fuels to the United States for sale.
It may also be wrapped in PVC vinyl packaging, which creates dioxins as a by-product through production that are known to damage the hormonal system and cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Obviously, a little bamboo does not make a truly green product.
2. They make claims with zero proof.
Walk up and down any supermarket aisle and you can see this in action. Claims are everywhere, but pick up the bottle or box and you'll be hard pressed to find a certification or any other supporting evidence. Often, you won't be able to find the evidence on the product's website either. Always look for third party, independent certifications.
3. They make claims with no meaning.
Claims like "All Natural" and "Green" are simply too broad to be clearly defined. Yet they continue to appear on product label after product label. Look beyond the claims at the packaging and ingredients list to evaluate the product.
4. They make claims that may be true, but are totally irrelevant.
Claims may be truthful, but completely irrelevant to the person making a buying decision. For example, an air freshener may boast that it does not contain a toxic substance like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). And sure, that sounds great. But CFCs were banned in all products decades ago.
Similarly, candles that promote "lead-free wicks" are also guilty of this type of greenwashing. In 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the manufacture and sale of lead-cored wicks and candles with lead-cored wicks in the US, so the claim is irrelevant.
BPA-free is another claim you often see. Bisphenol-A is a chemical added to polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins (e.g. cash register receipts and canned food lining) and is indicated by the resin identification number seven. Hence, when you see other plastic numbers labeled BPA-free, it's greenwashing at its finest since the BPA chemical makes the plastic hard and shatter-resistant, according to the American Chemistry Council. You won't find it in soft plastics, as reported by the USA Today.
5. They distract from the bigger picture.
Some industries are simply not green no matter which way you look at them. However, companies within those industries continually try to get us to focus on one small green gesture like an investment in alternative energy or the use of some recycled materials in their packaging.
By focusing our attention on what's green, however small, they hope that we forget much bigger environmental sins for which the company or industry is responsible. For example, the fact that a pack of cigarettes comes in recycled packaging does not make them "green."
6. They outright lie.
Let's leave the lying to conniving ingénues on prime time TV. Because there is no central regulatory body for all things "green," companies are still getting away with making completely false claims on their products. They may say a product is certified organic when no such certification from the USDA was bestowed. Or they may state that the packaging comes from recycled materials, when it doesn't.
Got a great example of a greenwashed product? Let me know in the comments below.