Is there a Green Lining Behind Greenwash?

Is it possible that continued “greenwash” in the marketplace is actually a positive sign?

A recent study of US and Canadian retailers conducted by TerraChoice reported an increase in the number of products introduced this year with environmental attributes – or at least claims around environmental attributes and performance. TerraChoice reports: “the number of ‘greener’ products increased by 73%” between 2009 and 2010.

73% growth in greener products in one year! And this mainly at big box retailers. Pretty amazing!

Unfortunately, 95% of these “greener” products committed one or more “sins of greenwashing” as TerraChoice calls them. In particular, green products often failed the test of greenwashing when they exhibited: “no proof”; “vagueness”; “use of fake labels”; or “hidden trade-offs.”

These are all serious problems. But they actually underlie a positive trend.

Even in tough economic times, a growing number of manufacturers feel they need to show “green” attributes to compete in the marketplace. Across multiple product categories, brands are introducing more green products. The fastest growth in green products – and green claims – is in baby products. As TerraChoice notes:

the percentage of products making BPA-free [bisphenol-A] claims has increased by 577%, and those making phthalate-free claims increased in 2550%! Two-thirds of these claims appear on toys and baby products.

This is a clear response to consumer fears around hazardous chemicals and growing market power of consumers doing research before they go shopping. Concerns over BPA and phthalates in baby bottles spread so quickly through the marketplace last year that every smart brand and retailer is now trying to figure out what the “next BPA” will be, and how they can get out front of the issue.

The scandal over how Sigg – the maker of aluminum water bottles – mishandled the BPA issue, and put the very future of their brand at risk, was a wake-up call for every marketer in the US.

The good news in all of this is that more brands feel they need to offer green products.

The bad news is that most brands aren’t backing up their claims, they aren’t being transparent enough about what really is in their products, and they aren’t using independent third parties to verify their claims, certifications, and eco-logos.

The potentially really bad news is not just that a few individual consumers will be deceived, but more importantly, that if greenwash continues to grow, consumers won’t believe in any green products.

The Federal Trade Commission is beginning to respond to this risk. The newly issued draft “Green Guides” are a first step toward regulating green marketing claims, and requiring brands to substantiate their claims with transparent data and third party verification.

Unfortunately, in the short-term, it will probably fall on the shoulders of consumers to directly demand greater transparency from brands and retailers. And consumers and NGOs will have to do their own research to learn if products are being truthful about their environmental and health claims.

GoodGuide of course is dedicated to exactly this kind of research and to helping people see through marketing claims to what is really in the products they buy, and to understand the full impacts of the global supply chains that produce the products we consume.

If we can turn the motivation to launch “green” products into an incentive for firms to be transparent about the environmental and health performance of their products, we might actually be able to change the market.

You can help us with this challenge by telling us when you see misleading claims on product packaging, or when you see poorly rated products that claim to be green. And let brands and retailers know you are happy they are offering more green products…but that they need to be transparent and honest in order to gain your trust, loyalty, and dollars.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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One Response to Is there a Green Lining Behind Greenwash?

  1. Pingback: 98% of ‘green’ products are a con; caveat emptor « Marketingheart

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