Greenwashing … Let the Buyer Beware

By Catherine Reeves, Manager, Communications & Systems, Xerox Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability

In response to growing consumer concern about climate change and other environmental impacts, environmental claims are increasing as a corporate marketing tool.  The claims are used across sectors, including energy, motor vehicles, household products, office equipment and food/drink. Some of the claims are general, e.g. eco-friendly, carbon neutral, green; while others are vague, e.g. natural, energy efficient, non-toxic, low carbon, pollutant-free, clean, zero emissions and sustainable.

How often have you seen a label that states the product is “environmentally friendly?” Did you ask yourself whether the term “environmentally friendly”  applies to the packaging, the product or both?  But wait… does the label indicate the evidence to support the claim or indicate what environmental impact in which it is “friendly?”

Greenwashing is the use of marketing claims or statements — whether words, names, seals, or other symbols — that deceive or mislead consumers as to the environmental benefits or attributes of a company’s product or service, or, more broadly, the company’s environmental practices as a whole.  Greenwashing may take the form of suggestive pictures or images that indicate an unjustified green impact (e.g. flowers blooming from smoke stacks).  It may take a myopic view, focusing only on the product attributes and not on the process used to manufacture the product (e.g. green products vs. dirty company: such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers).

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation’s consumer protection agency. A summary of updates to the FTC Green Guides go to was provided by Environmental Leader just this past week: FTC finalized ‘Rules of the Road’ for Environmental Marketers in Update to Green Guides. Other countries and providences have comparable watchdog agencies to protect consumers.

While it may seem like no big deal to make a vague environmental claim, the FTC considers it to be false advertising and conducts fraud investigation. The FTC or the courts have imposed “cease and desist orders,” civil penalties and corrective advertising/disclosures. These legally-binding orders require companies to stop running the deceptive ad or engaging in the deceptive practice, to have substantiation for claims in future ads, to report periodically to FTC staff about the substantiation they have for claims in new ads, and to pay a fine of $16,000 per day per ad if the company violates the law in the future.

A number of companies are conducting life-cycle assessments of their products. They are also seeking certification to respected and internationally recognized eco-labels such as Energy Star and EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool).  EPEAT exists today for computers and printers. This label’s certification criteria cover the entire spectrum of the product’s value chain, from material selection, manufacturing through to end of life management.  Governments are exerting their purchasing power by procuring only products that are EPEAT registered.

No firm wants to be accused of greenwashing, but they are equally concerned that if greenwashing persists, consumers will not take any environmental claim seriously and they won’t buy the truly “greener” product or service.

Nowhere else does the principle of “Caveat Emptor” apply than for environmental claims.  Environmental attributes are just as much an aspect of “quality” as are “reliability” and “material composition.”

Consumers need to invest the same energy in seeking the evidence that substantiates the environmental claim just as they would for other quality claims. Government agencies can develop laws, guidelines and carry out enforcement actions, but it is truly the consumers that have the greatest ability in sending a clear message to marketing companies… show us the evidence to support your claim or face loss of market share, civil suits and enforcement actions.

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