- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

As the green wave of environmentally friendly products has swept the country, it’s not just trendy anymore to say “natural,” “organic” or “we care.”

It’s expected. It also is an exaggeration a lot of the time, says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice, a Philadelphia environmental marketing and consulting firm. After looking at 1,018 products - from toothpaste to caulk, shampoo to electronics - TerraChoice found that 99 percent made false claims, committing at least one of what Mr. Case calls the “six sins of greenwashing.”

“Greenwashing is absolutely a problem,” Mr. Case says. “It is particularly a challenge now because a lot of new companies are getting pressure to ‘go green,’ while at the same time a lot of new consumers are interested in going green. A lot of the time, you have the blind leading the blind.”

Among the six sins:

mThe sin of the hidden trade-off. Mr. Case points out that many electronics make environmental claims but contain hazardous materials. Fifty-seven percent of the products TerraChoice tested committed this sin.

“This is when products focus attention on one area - such as saying paper is from recycled content - but they leave out the part about air pollution and chemicals,” he says.

mThe sin of no proof, such as claiming to be organic but not having actual certification. Mr. Case found 454 products guilty of this.

mThe sin of vagueness, such as saying a product is “earth friendly.”

“What does that even mean?” Mr. Case asks. There are products that claim to be all-natural, which means they can contain natural but hazardous compounds, such as arsenic and formaldehyde, he points out.

mThe sin of irrelevance, claiming to be free of something harmful. That’s great, but that something usually was banned by the government decades ago.

mThe sin of fibbing. TerraChoice found several products that falsely claimed they were EnergyStar- or EcoL ogo-recognized.

mThe sin of the lesser of two evils - the oxymoron of advertising. Environmentally friendly pesticides, anyone? How about an organic cigarette?

“If consumers are familiar with the six sins, it will be a lot harder to be fooled,” says Mr. Case, who declined to name the brands he tested. “Consumers will be able to see through the green fog that has been created.”

Meanwhile, some consumers say they can see through the hype. Adecco USA Workplace Insight surveyed 2,281 adults in the spring, and 68 percent of them said they think most companies greenwash their environmental actions. Consumers in other countries are similarly skeptical. The Advertising Standards Authority in Britain received 561 complaints about potentially false green ads last year, up from 117 the previous year. Norway has banned all car ads from using the terms “green,” “environmentally friendly” and “clean” on the grounds that all cars contribute to global warming.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its restrictions on environmental marketing claims for the first time since 1998. New guidelines and standards are expected this year in spite of complaints from trade and advertising groups, which claim tougher standards will harm business.

In the meantime, several organizations encourage monitoring advertising claims in order to spread the greenwashing warning. EnviroMedia, a Texas-based social marketing firm, has a greenwashing index (www.greenwashinginex.com) where consumers can post and view ad clips, rate them and comment on the doublespeak. All sorts of corporations get the criticism - from energy and car companies, naturally, to banks and companies selling liquor, paint and computers.

“We’re trying to raise the bar within our industry so hopefully we won’t need regulations,” says EnviroMedia founder Kevin Tuerff.

The environmental nonprofit Greenpeace also wants to end greenwashing. At its anti-greenwashing site (www.stopgreenwash.org), Greenpeace also posts ads it deems hypocritical.

“These days, green is the new black,” it says at stopgreenwash.org. “Corporations are falling all over themselves to demonstrate to current and potential customers that they are not only ecologically conscious, but also environmentally correct. Some businesses are genuinely committed to making the world a better, greener place. But for far too many others, environmentalism is little more than a convenient slogan.”

Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace, says this kind of greenwashing is especially harmful when it comes from big corporations as they seek changes in policy that will boost their business.

“We know that there are corporations that are scraping for access on Capitol Hill, particularly as environmental issues become more top-shelf,” he says.

Like TerraChoice, Greenpeace has its own list of offensive tactics. Among them:

m”Dirty business” - touting an environmental program or product while the corporation’s product or core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.

m”Ad bluster” - using targeted advertising and public relations campaigns to exaggerate an environmental achievement to divert attention away from environmental problems or spending more money advertising an environmental achievement than actually doing it.

m”Political spin” - Advertising or speaking about corporate “green” commitments while lobbying against pending or current environmental laws and regulations.

m”It’s the law, stupid” - When companies tout environmental achievements that already are required or mandated by existing laws. For example, if an industry or company has been forced to change a product, clean up its pollution or protect an endangered species, then uses PR campaigns to make such action look proactive or voluntary.

“We want to make people aware of tactics,” Mr. Davies says. “Not all green advertising is bad; we appreciate what some companies are doing for environmental education. We want to call out the egregious campaigns.”

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