Use / Misuse: Sustainable, Environmentally Friendly, Green – Part II

Poorly conceived approaches to marketing are another reason why terms like “green,” “sustainable,” and “environmentally friendly” are misused, leading to greenwashing and confused, skeptical consumers.

Peattie and Crane describe four critical issues that have “dogged the development of green marketing”:

• Green marketing firms have “frequently only used the environment as an additional promotional dimension without any attempt to analyze or modify the underlying product itself and its environmental impacts.”

• “Many firms have sought to address consumers’ needs, but their interest in the environment has been limited to the marketing department, or the production department, or some other individual function. This has prevented firms from developing a broad, holistic approach to green marketing.”

• “Many companies have been enthusiastic about green marketing when it has involved shortterm cost savings… but lukewarm when it has come to investing money in order to develop more sustainable products and processes.”

• “Much green marketing activity also has focused on avoiding any significant change, and focusing instead on marginal, incremental improvements to existing products and processes” (Peattie and Crane 2005).

Complicating matters is the widespread use of terms like “natural,” “organic,” “planet-friendly,” “earthfriendly,” “ecological,” “non-toxic,” “biodegradable,” “plant-based,” “chlorine-free,” and “100 percent compostable,” which consumers erroneously assume are synonymous with “green” (TerraChoice 2009).

To raise awareness and to educate consumers about the misuse of these terms in green product marketing and to encourage “truth in advertising and labeling,” TerraChoice published The Six Sins of Greenwashing in 2007. In a follow-up to this study, TerraChoice visited big box retailers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. in 2008 and 2009.

In the U.S. and Canada, a total of 2,219 products that made 4,996 green claims were recorded. These claims were tested against best practices, notably against guidelines provided by the FTC, Competition Bureau of Canada, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, and the ISO 14021 standard for environmental labeling (TerraChoice 2009). The Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition, the third TerraChoice study since 2007, surveyed 5,296 products in the U.S. and Canada that made an environmental claim.

The survey took place between March and May 2010, when TerraChoice researchers visited 19 retail stores in Canada and 15 in the U.S. Among the product categories that were studied were baby care products, toys, office products, building and construction products, cleaning products, housewares, health and beauty products, and consumer electronics (Terra Choice 2010).

The following are some of the key findings, which demonstrate the prolific misuse of these terms in the marketplace:

• Ninety-five (95) percent of consumer products that claim to be green have committed at least one “sin” of greenwashing. Of particular concern is that 100 percent of toys and 99.2 percent of baby products surveyed also committed some form of greenwashing.

• Green claims and incidences of greenwashing were found most frequently on the packages of children’s toys, baby products, cosmetics, and cleaning products, such as diapers, toothpaste, and window cleaners.

• Claims that prodcts are free of bisphenol A (BPA) increased nearly 600 percent (577 percent) since the 2009 study, appearing more frequently among toys and baby products than any other category studied.

• Phthalate-free claims rose 2,550 percent since 2009.

• Even though greenwashing continues to be rampant, it has declined slightly since 2009, with 4.5 percent of products now sin-free, compared with only two percent in 2009 and one percent in 2007.

• Marketers and product manufacturers, especially those who have more experience with green product marketing, are engaging in less greenwashing. The number of “sin-free” products in mature product categories, such as building, construction and office products, is five times greater than in immature categories, such as toys and baby products.

• Big box stores offer a much higher percentage (22.8 percent) of home and family products with legitimate green product certifications than specialty retailers (11.5 percent) or green boutiques (12.8 percent). Big box stores also have more products that are free of greenwashing (5.6 percent) than specialty retailers (1.7 percent) or green boutiques (0.5 percent). Furthermore, big box stores offer a broader selection of green products (293 per store) than green boutiques (109) or specialty retailers (85).

• Good eco-labeling helps prevent, but does not eliminate, greenwashing of products certified by a third-party certification program. More than 30 percent of these products are “sin-free.”

• Products bearing legitimate eco-labels or product certifications almost doubled in number, comprising 23 percent of products instead of 14 percent in 2009.

• Greenwashing is an international challenge, with very similar patterns in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia (TerraChoice 2009, 2010).

See Green Products: Key Attributes above for more information on eco labels and product certifications programs, as well as the important role they play in creating consumer confidence in green, sustainable products.