Weeding out the Greenwashers

While some product companies have taken a genuine interest in “going green,” others have acquired the bad habit of “Greenwashing” – putting up a green front, better known as the “green sheen,” and misleading consumers regarding their environmental leadership and the environmental benefits of their products. Many products in stores today are marketed with deceiving labels designed to make them look environmentally friendly. In truth, these labels are often vague, dated and irrelevant, or unverifiable. Some of them are just plain fake. A number of labels advertise a single green attribute of a product, like its recycled content, while diverting attention from other ways in which its company negatively impacts the environment. Paper product companies, for example, will often promote their products’ recycled content but say nothing of their greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing.

Greenwashing has created a confusing marketplace where many Americans are purchasing products with meaningless eco-labels and certifications. Some shoppers may have become so fed up with sifting through false advertising that they’ve given up trying to buy green products altogether.

GoodGuide is attempting to remedy all of this by giving credit where credit is due – GoodGuide devotes an entire section of its environmental rating scale for product-level data to certifications. Products get higher ratings if they’re marketed with trustworthy, third party eco-labels. The more of these certifications a product boasts, the better. GoodGuide also rewards products that have single certifications from organizations like EcoLogo or Green Seal, which indicate that a product has multiple “green” attributes.

Paper products are prime examples of items for which GoodGuide offers ratings that incorporate third party certifications. “Cascade Enviro Bathroom Tissue” gets an “8.2” overall Environment rating on GoodGuide. The website shows that this product is certified by EcoLogo, and this certification helps to boost its rating. You can also see which organizations haven’t certified Cascade Tissue, like Green Seal or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), by scrolling to the bottom of the featured product’s page.

By directing consumers toward products with trustworthy certifications, GoodGuide is working to prevent environmentalism from becoming nothing more than an empty slogan on product packaging. What’s more, GoodGuide helps consumers to look past a product’s labels and consider its overall environmental impact. “Seventh Generation 2 Ply Bathroom Tissue” is marketed with zero third party certifications, but its GoodGuide Environment rating is “7.9,” not much lower than Cascade’s. That’s because the company that produces this tissue gets really high ratings for its environmental impact, resource management, and overall commitment to sustainability. So, GoodGuide helps us to weed out the Greenwashers in two ways: by pointing us toward legitimate environmental certifications and by highlighting those green attributes that aren’t obvious from a product’s labels, alone.

Here’s a sampling of the certifications that GoodGuide considers when evaluating products:

About Sarah Consagra

Sarah is a rising junior at Middlebury College in Vermont. She is a Psychology major and plans to minor in both English and Global Health.
This entry was posted in Environmental Issues and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Weeding out the Greenwashers

  1. Diane Bucka says:

    It would be interesting to note who is certifying the certifiers? What constitutes a credible benchmark and how is objectivity ascertained? As a local consultant to small businesses, I would like to be able to point clients toward certifications as a means of demonstrating their commitment to sustainable practices (not all of which are environmentally-focused). Companies embracing good practices deserve to promote themselves as such; this capability would have the further benefit of helping consumers show their preference for such business practices. The challenge is in the legitimacy of the certification and also in channels to market this posture without the assumption that doing so is greenwashing.

  2. Bad eco-labels are just another form of greenwashing…

    GoodGuide’s focus on eco-labels is an outstanding development. Congratulations on the move!

    What’s missing for most consumers is a simple and systematic way of differentiating between labels, which is where I hope GoodGuide can someday soon fill a gap. As an example, take FSC and SFI, two of North America’s largest forestry certification schemes. Studies consistently point out that FSC has better impacts on the ground. FSC’s strengths in auditing, stakeholder engagement, and –often crucially — chain-of-custody management (how certified product is kept track of), make it a different class of standard entirely. SFI is often described as simply “turnkey” certification for the forestry industry: ie, greenwashing by another name.

    This inability of the average consumer to differentiate between standards is compounded by the proliferation of eco-labels. Take a look at the http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ and you’ll see just how many eco-labels are out there and how hard it is to tell the differences. Hundreds of standards compete for consumers’ eyes.

    To my mind, knowing who worked set the standard, and how the standard was set, are two of the most important differentators of sustainability standards. Are the standards set by multiple stakeholders or largely by corporations? By governments? By nonprofits? How transparent is the process? The ISEAL Alliance Code of Good Practice for Standard Setting has become the gold standard to which sustainability standard setting is usually benchmarked. (ISEAL is the global association of sustainability standards). The ISEAL Code requires rigorous global stakeholder engagement done in a transparent way so that all stakeholder voices can be recognized and integrated into the standard–from producers to consumers to corporations to government regulators to buyers and sellers of products. This system is the most rigorous and useful for ensuring that a label really is achieving what it claims.

    Another differentiator is how sustainability standards measure their impacts with their target groups. Again, the ISEAL Alliance has something called the Impact Code that requires its member standards systems to devise a narrative for their impact, set indicators, and measure change on the ground over time. This way you can be assured that, for example, Fair Trade really is making a difference to farmers, etc.

    I look forward to seeing GoodGuide’s take on differentiating sustainability standards so GoodGuide users can have a trusted and scientific view of the differences. In the meantime, your efforts to create radical transparency for consumers by listing products’ certification systems is commendable.

    Full disclosure: I have collaborated and continue to collaborate with the ISEAL Alliance and its members because I see these standards as the best blend of transparency, reliability, rigor, multi-stakeholder engagement, and practicality. Even though these standards are most often high and best in class, they are set in such a way that they should be achievable by the vast majority of companies and producers where the will is there to do so. Part of spurring companies to do more is to consumer power, which GoodGuide is going far to promote.

  3. Pingback: 12 Tips For A Healthy 2012 | GoodGuide Blog

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