Cleaning & Restoration Breaking News

Products hyped as 'green' often are not

May 30, 2008
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Natural. Organic. Fresh. Clean. Good for the environment.

It seems every company out there is making some sort of reference to natural ingredients and the eco-friendliness of its products.

Car commercials tout fuel efficiency; appliance stickers sell energy savings, produce boasts organic certifications, and everything from paper towels to cleaning chemicals are packaged in and made with materials that are supposedly less harmful to the environment. Even oil and chemical companies have jumped on the bandwagon with commercials about preservation and efficiency.

Natural and "green" products abound -- but with so much green advertising, it's sometimes hard to tell what's for real and who is trying to pull the recycled wool over the eyes of consumers.

Despite a plethora of materials and organizations dedicated to green products and services, the definition of "green" can vary between organizations and between consumers. Mic LeBel, a partner at Planet Friendly Public Relations, a firm that represents clients with green products, says "green" is often defined in the minds of the individual consumers. In general, green products uphold the values of fair trade, protecting the environment, supporting sustainable resources and paying workers a living wage.

Joey Shepp, founder and chief executive officer of the green search engine Greenmaven.com, says "green" could apply to any product, service or company that upholds "green values." Examples include organic food, fair trade coffee, organic clothing, renewable energy, lead-certified green buildings and hybrid vehicles. Shepp says people buy green because they care about the world.

"They can see that by buying this food or product, they're actually helping the environment. It starts with a personal motivation but also moves to a larger environmental and social awareness," says Shepp.

While the origins of environmentalism can be traced back to 19th century Europe, it wasn't until post-World War II industrialization that people began to take notice of the environmental damages caused by man. By the 1980s -- with the Chernobyl meltdown and the Exxon Valdez disaster -- consumers became more aware of how corporate decisions affect their lives, their futures and the planet. As globalization took hold, stories of sweatshops, human rights abuses and environmental damages started to creep more and more into the evening news.

Some corporations, not anxious to alter their operations, instead implemented the use of "green" marketing and advertising as a means to mask or soften their images. Pratap Chatterjee, program director for CorpWatch, an investigative corporate watchdog Web site, points to the oil companies as some of the earliest and most prolific "greenwashers." Chatterjee says that Chevron's "People Do" campaign started in the 1990s is a classic example of greenwashing.

"They ran a series of ads with birds and wildlife refuges implying that Chevron was saving wildlife. There is not much that could be further from the truth," says Chatterjee. "Chevron's work in extracting petroleum involves going into places like Nigeria where they create a tremendous amount of pollution, far beyond what they would do here."

In July 2000, British Petroleum launched a $200 million advertising campaign introducing the world to its new slogan "Beyond Petroleum." A new green shield logo was also introduced. The campaign stated that BP was producing cleaner fuels, that it was exploring more solar energy and that it was investing millions of dollars into alternative fuels. While all of those may have been true, the company had a questionable environmental record in the past and in 2006 was responsible for an oil spill of more than 200,000 gallons at the transit lines in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Greenwashing can also come in more subtle means, like chemical plants hiding smokestacks behind a thick barrier of trees or landscaping their office buildings with beautiful, green foliage. Other companies actually paint their buildings and equipment green and use animals or natural elements as logos. Multinational corporations can even relocate their hazardous chemical production to developing countries where environmental standards are lax. Some companies simply make a donation to an environmental organization, then publicize it through press releases or advertisements.

Shepp says that because we are still in the era of developing standards, many companies use their own corporate social responsibility, or CSR, reports to tout how sustainable and environmentally responsible they are. The problem is that many reports and claims don't have third-party verification. Many nongovernmental organizations are highly suspicious and critical of CSRs, which they say are usually nothing more than corporate "spin."

"When you see companies creating their own certifications and labels, those are the ones to be questioned. They all have these CSRs but a lot of them don't hold water when tested academically," says Shepp.

While greenwashing is often used by large corporations to present a greener image or to mask environmental issues, it can also be used subtly to sell regular products on the shelves. There are a number of consultants and marketing firms that focus on reaching out to the green crowd, often through the use of green words and phrases. Then there is the packaging where trees, plants or natural images can often be used to imply greenness or a sense of eco-responsibility. Many companies put their own logos on the back near ingredient lists to claim that a product is "earth-friendly," "natural" or "safe for the environment."

LeBel says that companies market their true green products by packaging and communicating with the customer. Because green consumers often care about where products originate, companies need to publicize their stories and show any third-party certifications that they may have.

By going green, or at least creating an impression of greenness, companies are selling a philosophy and a set of values to the consumer. Tucson, Ariz., resident Brenda Lee Kozuch has always had an interest in green products, but has become more educated and aware of the matters over the years. Her shopping habits range from buying cloth diapers for her child to eco-friendly clothing and clean products that she purchases over the Internet.

"For me and my family, it's mostly for the health reasons and to lessen my impact on the environment. It goes pretty far for me," says Kozuch.

The differing definitions of green can sometimes cause green advocates to battle over what is really green or what is greener. One case in study is ethanol, which has recently been touted as a cleaner and greener fuel that cannot only help save the environment but can help wean the United States off foreign oil. But Todd Larsen, corporate responsibility programs director for Co-op America, says ethanol isn't really a green solution. Millions of acres of land, argues Larsen, would need to be cleared to plant more corn, more environmental damage would occur from the run-off from fields and a food crop would be diverted to energy. It would ultimately raise the price of corn, he adds, putting pressure on the world's poor that won't be able to afford a major staple of their diet.

"A true green solution (or greener solution) would be to increase the fuel efficiency of the cars and create more hybrids and plug-in vehicles," says Larsen.

The demand for more fuel-efficient cars has significantly increased in the past couple of years but may be due more to the increased price of gas than consumers' desires to leave a smaller "footprint." Nevertheless, automakers have been eager to respond by promoting and advertising more fuel efficient vehicles. Green advocates all agree that as demand for green products and services increase, so will the supply.

But at times, there appears to be greenwashing even within the green community itself. Al Gore, one of the leaders of the environmental movement, has been criticized for his nongreen policies when he pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement while serving as vice president. The agreement opened the door to some of the unfair trade practices which many green organizations are speaking out against today. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA,, for example, offers report cards on greenwashing organizations that try to mask testing products on animals. Meanwhile, PETA also has its critics, who say that the organization kills more animals (through euthanasia) than it helps.

It might also be a fair observation to say that nothing in the civilized world is truly green. Those that live the hardcore green lifestyle note that no matter how green a product may be, chances are it is shipped to stores on smoke-belching trucks and handled by underpaid workers at some point in the supply chain. Within the green realm are certain levels of greenness that range from buying a compact fluorescent light bulb to living strictly off solar power, boycotting big chain retailers and riding a bicycle.

Oil companies are far from being the only greenwashers. Everyone from big-box retailers to small service providers and corner stores use the tactic to cater to a greener market. Large corporations may be reluctant to change their ways because of the costs involved, but as more consumers demand green products, going green can also be good for profits. Shepp says green values can coexist with the pursuit of profit.

"I would actually look at the whole sustainability movement, not just about sustaining resources but about sustaining profit. Wind energy is a good example of that. It's not like fossil fuels where there is a certain scarcity. We can have as much as we want," says Shepp.

Larsen at Co-op America points to Patagonia as a successful and profitable company that was founded on and operates on strict green principles. The outdoor clothing and gear company has actually built a loyal following on its principles and is known for producing products that cause the least harm to the environment and treating their employees well. The company engages in environmental activism and even recycles clothes into new garments.

As more certification organizations come online and jump into the industry, the greenwashing of products may become less common. Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and outreach at GreenSeal.org, says that because organic products must be certified and because organic foods must have a United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, organic seal, there is little, if any, greenwashing in the organic industry. Companies that make false claims can be investigated and fined up to $11,000 per incident under the Organic Foods Production Act.

"Because there are national organic standards, there should not be any greenwashing with organic products. And if you're talking about food, there cannot be greenwashing with organic food because there is traceability and a paper trail," says Chipperfield.

"Organic" is defined as an ecological production management system that is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs -- materials, such as chemicals, used to increase production that do not originate on the farm -- and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. Organic products are not just limited to produce and can include organic clothing, apparel, flowers, pet food and nutritional supplements.

Other green-related certifications and authorities include Energy Star, whose logo is given to products which meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. Green Seal uses science-based environmental certification standards to certify everything from coffee filters to air chillers. Green building design, which is becoming increasingly common, is measured and documented by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System under the U.S. Green Building Council. Co-op America also runs a network of more than 3,000 screened and approved green businesses.

In the end, it's a combination of consumer education and the rise of certification standards and organizations that will lay greenwashing to rest. Chatterjee says fluffy green ads are often a response to consumers' increasing concern for the environment. "It's really just about selling a product," says Chatterjee.

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