Read Green: How to watch out for “greenwashing”

TERESA WADEGreen by proxy

There can be great value in a brand — a name or product we invest in and count on. But as our community continues on its green journey, how can we know which of these green brands, labels, advertisements and certifications are authentic and which are simply engaged in “greenwashing,” the practice of misleading consumers about the environmental practices of a company or the benefits it claims for marketing purposes?

It may make us feel good to support something with a green label on it, but a disappointing experience can do more harm than good. Whether dealing with laundry detergent, office supplies or a full community certification we must take care to become educated, verify the value proposition and avoid believing everything we read.

Many products — including detergents, paints, carpets and fabrics — are required to list only a small percentage of their ingredients on their labels. But why would you choose a product that you or your children may eat, touch or sleep on if you don’t know all its ingredients? And what would a manufacturer stand to gain by failing to list all its ingredients?

Transparency influences customer loyalty — and is imperative for organizations making green claims.

In reality, true value creation is not achieved by slapping a green label on something. And though it’s true that some companies innocently greenwash out of a lack of knowledge, the US Federal Trade Commission defines and enforces the use of environmental terms, so those organizations should be able to officially verify their claims. Organizations like Green Seal, EcoLogo and the Consumers’ Union offer ratings and information to guide consumers’ decisionmaking, and secondary educational programs can equip green professionals with a formal understanding of scientific, economic, social and ethical considerations.

If you’re unsure about a company’s green claims, reference the aforementioned and do some research. Are their claims:
• Meaningful and verifiable?
• Consistent and clear?
• Transparent?
• Independent and free of conflict of interest?

As our community embraces the opportunity for change, we must remember that the goal is long-term value creation. We didn’t achieve our current state of massive consumerism and waste overnight; it took time. Going green authentically with product choices and behaviors also means changing our lifestyles, not merely going green by proxy. Do we want to be simply “perceived” as green, or be authentic and truly green to achieve longterm sustainability for our environment, economy and people? Every green step matters.

Teresa Wade is the principal of Sustainable Solutions, a local consultancy that helps organizations impact their triple bottom line with sustainable practices.