Greenwashing -- the practice of making products seem more environmentally friendly than they really are -- takes place everywhere from the boardrooms of BP to your local grocer. Even packages of drain cleaner and pesticide are adorned with lovely green leaves, waterfalls, mountains and other natural scenery. Greenwashing is so prevalent that groups like Terrachoice have made a cottage industry out of highlighting the worst offenses.
Don't get fooled again: below are some ways of spotting when you're being greenwashed. Shop smart, read labels, and remember the wisdom of old: caveat emptor!
1. Just One Environmental Attribute
Ever notice how kids' breakfast cereals always hype the fact that they contain "eight essential vitamins"? They don't, of course, brag about also containing enough sugar to send a horse into diabetic shock.
The same dynamic works in greenwashing -- hyping one environmental benefit to draw attention away from the real environmental costs of a product. Office paper, for example, may contain some recycled content, but clearcutting forests, bleaching paper and polluting runoff from paper mills more than offset the puny benefit of ten percent recycled content.
According to Terrachoice, this tactic is the most widely used form of greenwashing, responsible for over half of all examples of greenwashing.
2. Funny-Sounding Certification
There are several legitimate organizations that provide environmental certification to highlight the green merits of products and services: EcoLogo, Energy Star, Green Seal and the Forest Stewardship Council are among those with genuine credibility.
And then there are industry-funded groups whose purpose is to create a confusing smokescreen of bogus environmental credentials for polluting manufacturers and products of dubious safety. The Vinyl Institute is one: While promoting the (highly questionable) green benefits of vinyl building products, the vinyl industry group purposefully covers up the material's real risks to human health and the environment.
3. No Proof to Back Up Claims
Countless beauty products claim they weren't tested on animals -- but who's checking? Many of these products aren't certified by any impartial, third-party credentialing agency, and most cosmetic companies still haven't signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
In cases like these, where there's no proof of any green manufacturing processes or contents, and no way to confirm, it's likely that you're being greenwashed.
4. Vague Environmental Merits
This one's my favorite: Pesticides that claim to be "all-natural." Shampoos that proudly state they're "free of chemicals." Diapers that are distinguished by being "non-toxic."
Ever wonder what they're talking about with these vague claims? You should. A shampoo really can't be free of chemicals, since even water and air are chemicals. An "all-natural" pesticide is still deadly -- remember, rattlesnake venom is also an all-natural, organic ingredient. But don't wash your hair with it.
5. Utter Irrelevance
Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs -- the compound that contributes mightily to ozone depletion -- have been banned for years. Despite this, dozens of consumer products, from over cleaners to shaving creams, still brag about being free of CFCs or other compounds. It's an old advertising gimmick, and it still works. Don't fall for it.
6. Greener of Two Evils
Organic cigarettes -- think about it for a minute. They may seem safer or healthier than non-organic cigarettes, but in this context, "healthier" really means "just slightly less deadly." When the product itself is as destructive as tobacco, no amount of organic wrapping can make it a "good" product.
The same greenwashing scam can apply to hundreds of other products, from SUVs to nuclear energy plants. No matter how many forests are saved by a nuclear energy plant, it still traffics in radioactive waste.
7. Blatant Lies
Yes, Virginia, advertisers do lie. A lot. In their survey, Terrachoice found a dishwasher detergent that claimed to be packaged in 100% recycled paper, but the container was plastic. It may seem easy to spot these fibs, but millions of people are duped by product claims because they simply don't scrutinize packaging carefully enough.
8. Clever Titles
The best example of this might be Clean Coal -- which is as oxymoronic as Jumbo Shrimp, Plump Juicy Raisins or Business Ethics. There's nothing clean about coal, and any name or title so clever that it sounds invented by a Madison Avenue ad agency probably was.
Another egregious example was the Clear Skies Initiative, promoted by President George W. Bush in 2002. Ostensibly developed to reduce air pollution, the Clear Skies Act in reality weakened existing environmental regulations and allowed more pollution to occur, including an increase in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions.
9. A Portion of all Proceeds...
Ever wonder exactly what portion of company proceeds goes to different causes and groups? With a vague promise like this, even a pitiful contribution of two bucks could be considered "a portion of proceeds." Look for hard numbers -- though one percent may seem like a small percentage of profits, at least it's a real number.
10. Ulterior Motives
From Boston to Bangkok, there's not a hotel left that doesn't boast about its commitment to the environment by washing fewer towels and sheets. True, that does save water and energy, but the real reason hotels don't want to wash your towels is because it saves money, not because they give a damn about fish.
Remember the "People Do" ad campaign from Chevron? The commercials, replete with gauzy images of honey-colored sunsets and a lush violin soundtrack, would leave you to believe that the oil giant volunteered to create wetlands habitat because they love birds and flowers. But people don't -- Chevron was in fact forced by court order to develop wetland habitats because of numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act.