Thursday, June 12, 2008

Greenwashing’s powerful effect on consumerism

What do you think of when you hear the word greenwashing?

I asked a few students and got some interesting responses. One thought it was a new environmentally friendly laundry soap; another pictured someone scrubbing grass like you would a tile floor or hosing down a tree to clean its leaves.

Images of someone taking soap and water to their lawn is amusing, but the true meaning of greenwashing is a serious topic that effects consumerism in a big way.

Put simply, greenwashing is a term that describes a company, government or organization that advertises positive environmental practices while acting in the opposite.

We’ve all seen the revolution in the store aisles. Next to the paper towels you always buy is a new option decorated with green leafy tendrils to advertise its environmental sustainability.

Now you’re faced with a new dilemma. Do you choose the tree-killing chemically treated triple-ply value brand or go with most likely more expensive tree-planting brand? More and more consumers, fueled by incessant media coverage of the green movement and the increased popularity of buying organic, untreated products, are picking up the expensive “eco-friendly” advertised brands.

But how green are the products themselves? All too often consumers get sucked into cool advertising that sells a product not much different than the value brand.

In fact, according to an independent study conducted by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. in 2007, more than 99 percent of environmental claims on consumer products are demonstrably false or risk misleading their intended audiences.

TerraChoice defined what they call the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” to describe the different falsifying claims on these so-called green products. The most common sins committed are the hidden trade-off and the sins of no proof and vagueness.

The hidden trade-off is fairly straight forward. Those paper towel companies that promote their recycled content or sustainable harvesting don’t mention the environmental impact of their manufacturing processes, which aren’t so green.

The sins of no proof and vagueness are where the green paint hits the fan. Product and service claims that provide no evidence or certification of their validity are nothing short of fraud. My favorite is the “all natural” claim. As TerraChoice points out, arsenic is natural, as is uranium, mercury and formaldehyde. All of which are poisonous.

So what’s the big deal? Advertisers have always lied to us to influence consumer buying power.

The problem lies within the reason behind buying green products. Unlike other marketing ploys that try to convince us either to buy at the place with the best price or buy the product with the best value no matter what the cost. Buying green is buying into a philosophy that supports the environment.

False and misleading advertisers give consumers the sense that purchasing their product supports that philosophy. The result is the uniformed majority pay more for a lot of hot air, and true environmentalists have no faith in green claims.

So far the only standards used to measure environmental products and services are a few certification organizations. There is no Federal standard required to display environmental claims on product labels.

The best bet is to look for products that have the logo of an outside certification organization. Eco-logo, Green Seal, Green Label and Energy Star, among others, are recognizable certifications that require total company analysis before giving a product a environmentally friendly rating.

The next time you’re in the paper towel aisle, don’t get greenwashed. If the product doesn’t support its claims using an outside agency or at the very least provide proof on its own Web site, ignore the green paint and cute pictures of baby trees. You’ll save a little green in the process.

Cartoon by Jose Sandoval,an Advertising Design & Print student at Texas State Technical College.

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