Increasingly, consumers are voting
for environmental sustainability with their dollars. For instance,
the North American organic sector is said to be growing by 20
percent a year and the market for healthy, eco-friendly products has
been estimated now to be worth over $200 billion annually in the
U.S. alone. Many consumers are willing to pay significantly more for
products branded “natural” or ”organic,” believing them to be of
superior quality and safer for themselves and for the environment.
Businesses, both large and small, are obliging with an
ever-expanding selection of products catering to this new
eco-sensibility. In addition to fattening their bottom lines by
providing a competitive edge with this growing number of green
consumers, environmental performance has become a point of social
responsibility for many corporations.
However, as green moves beyond niche
market status and becomes the color of choice for mass
merchandisers, not all products and companies are as environmentally
responsible as they advertise themselves to be. Hence, the term
“greenwashing,” which was coined as far back as the 1970s by
environmental activists to describe advertising by corporations
meant to portray them as environmentally responsible in order to
mask environmental wrongdoings. The U.S.-based watchdog group
CorpWatch defines greenwash as “the phenomena of socially and
environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and
expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the
environment.” Former Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry
Mander (best known for his 1977 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
) called it “ecopornography” in a 1972
article in Communications and Arts Magazine. The term “greenwashing”
is now used to describe a wide range of attempts by businesses to
attract environmentally aware consumers, including the creation of
organizations, celebrity endorsements, event sponsorship and the use
of meaningless and unverifiable words like “natural,” “green,”
“eco-friendly,” “non-toxic and “chemical-free” on labels and
packaging. Even the word “organic” is meaningless unless it is
backed up by certification.
The practice is widespread. In the spring of
2007, Ottawa-based TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. sent
research teams into six big box stores with instructions to record
the details of every product-based environmental claim they
observed. After recording 1,753 environmental claims on 1,018
products, they tested the claims against current best practices in
environmental marketing. The sources for these best practices
include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO),
the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, Consumers Union and the Canadian Consumer Affairs Branch.
Then they studied the resulting list of false or misleading claims
for patterns and lessons, distilling them into the “Six Sins of
Greenwashing.” Of the 1,018 products that made environmental claims,
all but one committed at least one of the Six Sins.
term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1970s by environmental activists to
describe advertising by corporations meaning to portray themselves as
environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings.
Some examples of this sort of questionable marketing include
golf courses that bill themselves as “natural” and “green” in spite of heavy
pesticide use and office equipment that is promoted as energy-efficient in spite
of high hazardous material content, indoor air quality issues or incompatibility
with recycled paper or remanufactured toner cartridges. Then there are Frito
Lay’s “Eco- Friendly Factory, Low-Guilt Potato Chips,” or at least that’s how
the PepsiCo subsidiary promoted the pesticide sprayed, deep fried products of
its recent green factory retrofit in a press release.
One of the many new so-called “green” magazines recently
touted, in an advertorial feature, paper towels made from recycled paper and
chlorine-free bleach. But this is an inherently non- green and unnecessary
product, easily replaced by reusable cloth towels or, better yet, a piece of
cloth that has outlived its original purpose as clothing or bedding.
A classic example of greenwashing is described in an article
on the businessethics.ca website by Melissa Whellams, a corporate social
responsibility advisor with Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR)
and Chris MacDonald, a business ethics professor at St. Mary’s University in
Halifax. They cite an advertisement that appeared in National Geographic
magazine in 2004, in which Ford Motor Company tried to convince readers of its
commitment to the environment by announcing the launch of the Escape Hybrid SUV
and the remodeling of a factory. The ad read, “Green vehicles. Cleaner
factories. It’s the right road for our company, and we’re well underway.”
Whellams and MacDonald note that Ford failed to tell readers that it only
planned to produce 20,000 of its Hybrid SUVs per year, while continuing to
produce almost 80,000 F-series trucks per month. “Moreover,” they write, “just
prior to the campaign’s release, the Environmental Protection Agency announced
that Ford had the worst fleet wide fuel economy of all major automakers. Ford’s
failure to live up to its environmentally friendly image earned the company
first prize among America’s top ten worst greenwashers of the year.”
Unfortunately, Ford got away with that and continued on with
the green paint. In January 2006, Bloomberg described a Ford ad claiming it was
“dramatically ramping up its commitment” to more environmentally friendly cars.
Bloomberg noted that in 2004 Ford had joined other automakers in suing to block
a California law that would limit emissions of greenhouse gases. Richard
Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general, was quoted as calling some of Ford’s
claims “questionable,” telling Bloomberg, “They’re definitely exploiting the
fashion of environmentally friendly vehicles.”
Another blatant and monumental instance of greenwashing that
has duped some people – including much of the mainstream media – is the current
attempt to paint nuclear power as environmentally friendly. A TV commercial
aired by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry trade group,
states: “Nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouses gases, so they protect our
environment.” What is left unmentioned, of course, are the greenhouse gas
emissions involved with uranium mining, milling, enrichment and fuel
fabrication, not to mention the unsolved problem of how to dispose of
Another blatant and monumental
instance of greenwashing that has duped some people – including much of the
mainstream media – is the current attempt to paint nuclear power as
The rapid-growing natural food and personal care products
industry is another one that is being outed for excessive greenwashing.
A study released earlier this year found a carcinogen in a number of leading
so-called “natural” personal care products. Commissioned by the watchdog group
Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and overseen by environmental health
consumer advocate David Steinman, the study analyzed leading “natural” and
“organic” brand shampoos, body washes, lotions and other personal care products.
A reputable third-party laboratory known for rigorous testing and chain-of-custody protocols performed the testing.
Apparently, ethoxylation, a cheap short-cut companies use to
provide mildness to harsh ingredients, requires the use of the cancer-causing
petrochemical Ethylene Oxide, which generates 1,4-Dioxane as a by-product.
1,4-Dioxane is designated by the State of California to cause cancer, is
suspected as a kidney-, neuro- and respiratory-toxicant, among others and is a
leading groundwater contaminant. It is normally found in traditional soaps and
shampoos, but the OCA report has jolted the natural products industry.
Some of the well-known brands found by the OCA study to
contain 1,4-Dioxane included JASON Pure Natural & Organic, Giovanni Organic
Cosmetics, Kiss My Face, Nature’s Gate Organics and Whole Food’s house brand
365. None of the brands containing the carcinogen bore the USDA organic label.
The biggest offenders were the “natural” dish detergents.
Both the OCA and Steinman called for misleadingly labeled
brands that include ethoxylate ingredients or otherwise utilize petrochemicals
to drop all organic claims from their branding and labeling. Further, the OCA
has given the companies until September 1 to remove all “organic” branding and
labeling from their packaging under threat of a lawsuit accusing them of false
and deceptive advertising and unfair and unlawful business practice under
Meanwhile, to avoid 1,4-Dioxane, the OCA urges consumers to
search ingredient lists for indications of ethoxylation including: “myreth,” “oleth,”
“laureth,” “ceteareth,” any other “eth,” “PEG,” “polyethylene,” “polyethylene
glycol,” “polyoxyethylene” or “oxynol” in ingredient names. In general, the OCA
urges consumers to avoid products with unpronounceable ingredients.
Reading labels is good advice. That way, you can try to avoid
greenwashing by seeking products that are certified to meet legitimate
environmental standards by an independent third party. But unfortunately, even certification isn’t always trustworthy.
Aurora Dairy Corporation, based in Boulder, Colorado, has been accused by the
USDA of willfully violating federal organic law after a formal complaint was
lodged by the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit farm policy research group.
Aurora and grocery retailers Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Safeway and Wild Oats are
the subject of class action lawsuits citing consumer fraud for marketing suspect
Independent investigators at the USDA concluded that Aurora,
with $100 million in annual sales from five dairy facilities in Colorado and
Texas, each milking thousands of cows, had 14 “willful” violations of federal
organic regulations. Aurora was confining cows to factory farm-style pens and
sheds in feedlots rather than grazing the animals as the federal law requires.
Furthermore, Aurora brought conventional animals into their organic milking
operation in a manner prohibited by the U.S. government’s Organic Food
Cornucopia points out that Aurora is a “horrible aberration.”
In a scorecard published last year and available on its website
www.cornucopia.org, the organization rates over 90 percent of organic name-brand
dairy products as truly subscribing to the letter and spirit of the law.
Reading labels is good advice. That way,
you can try to avoid greenwashing by seeking products that are certified to
meet legitimate environmental standards by an independent third party. But
unfortunately, even certification isn’t always trustworthy.
These green marketing tactics have caught the eye of the U.S.
Federal Trade Commission, which has recently been looking at both advertising
and packaging claims, as well as examining the booming business of selling
carbon offsets, which are billed as a way to balance the greenhouse gas
emissions created by activities like excessive computer or paper usage or air
travel, by supporting tree planting or renewable energy projects. Deborah Platt
Majoras, chairwoman of the FTC, has said that with the tremendous growth in the
field, there is potential for abuse of the public’s trust and that the
commission is concerned that some green marketing assertions are not
That erosion of trust breeds cynicism – or even a backlash.
Firms spending money on innovation to create green products can lose market
share to money-saving greenwashers and due to consumer cynicism. Another danger
is that consumers could be lulled into a false sense of complacency when
surrounded with a sea of green, thinking the environmental problem is solved
merely by buying some dish detergent with a leaf on the label. A proliferation
of greenwashing can also fool regulation-shy governments into shirking their
duty because the corporate sector appears to be self-regulating.
However, there are no perfect products and everything we do
has an impact. Because the temptation to greenwash can be seen as a necessary
part of an economy’s adjustment to a new, more sustainable mode, one person’s
greenwash is another person’s market-driven approach to solving global warming.
And that’s the rationalization used by the increasing number of non-profit
organizations partnering with corporations: They believe that they can then have
a larger impact than if they struggled along on their own.
In the U.S., the Climate Action Partnership is one example of
such a partnership between conglomerates like BP America, Duke Energy, DuPont,
General Electric and PG&E with groups like Environmental Defense and the Natural
Resources Defense Council. In recent years, a number of Canadian conservation
groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness
Society and the Canadian Boreal Initiative, have receiving funding from Pew
Family Charitable Trusts, set up by the same family that used to control the
Alberta Tar Sands giant Suncor.
In what may be the most controversial of these liaisons, one
of the least green companies – The Clorox Company, which was named the U.S.’s
most chemically dangerous by the Public Interest Research Group – has teamed up
with the Sierra Club, self-described as the nation’s oldest, largest and most
effective environmental organization. Last December, the Sierra Club’s board
voted to allow Clorox to use its name and logo to market a new line of
non-chlorinated cleaning products called “Green Works.” In return, Clorox
Company will pay Sierra Club an undisclosed but “substantial” fee, based partly
on product sales. The deal angered and embittered Club members country-wide.
This Spring, the national board took the unprecedented action of removing the
leaders of the Club’s 35,000-member Florida chapter and suspending the Chapter
for four years. The chapter leaders had been highly critical of the agreement.
No doubt these organizations need the money and these
liaisons help take their messages to the masses. But they must be vigilant if
the funding isn’t to compromise the quality or believability of the message. And
the fact remains that the corporations are benefitting from branding themselves
as green when they’re often far from that. And that, like all greenwashing, is
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 35 years of
experience. She has also authored twelve books.