From the February/March 2009 Issue:

Greenwashing 101

Do the "eco-friendly" products you purchase live up to their claims?

As everyone’s commitment to the environment grows, so does the opportunity for unscrupulous firms to take advantage of the situation. There’s even a name for it: greenwashing. According to Terrachoice, a science-based environmental marketing firm, greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers about a company’s environmental practices or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Terrachoice, which helps companies evaluate their carbon footprints and position themselves as leaders in the environmental marketplace, manages the EcoLogo certification program, which looks at the total lifecycle of products and services. The guidelines for these certifications began with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and The Department of Canadian Consumer Affairs and are now called ISO 14020 and 14024, as set by The International Organization for Standardization. All tests are conducted by independent auditors. Terrachoice also offers the following information.

Article Photo
enlarge | Scot Case, vice president and marketing director at Terrachoice Environmental Marketing.
Six Sins of Greenwashing
Examples listed with each sin are for home design and construction products. For more examples,

1. Hidden Tradeoffs — when a firm says its product is “green” based on a single attribute without weighing manufacturing impacts such emissions and water usage. Examples: lumber products promoting their recycled content or sustainable harvesting practices without considering energy costs or air and water emissions.

2. No Proof — when a company makes a claim that can’t be substantiated easily or reliably by third-party certification (websites and toll-free numbers are easy ways to deliver proof). Examples: lighting promoting energy efficiency without supporting evidence.

3. Vagueness — when a claim is so poorly defined or broad that consumers are likely to misunderstand the real meaning. Examples: products with the black “chasing arrows” triangle label indicating a percentage of the materials are recycled, but with no further explanation. Or labels with phrases such as “chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” “all-natural,” or “environmentally friendly” on products such as garden insecticides and household cleaners. Nothing is chemical-free, and everything can be toxic in sufficient dosage.

4. Irrelevance — when an environmental claim is truthful but unhelpful and distracts the consumer from finding a truly greener option. Example: aerosol products labeled “CFC-free” (CFCs were banned for that use 30 years ago, and the product could contain other harmful chemicals).

5. Lesser of Two Evils — when a product claims to be green in one category, which may be true, but is harmful on the whole. Example: insecticides are essential in certain agricultural applications, so choosing the greenest option is better. However, insecticides and pesticides many be unnecessary for cosmetic applications such as lawns.

6. Fibbing — when claims are simply false. Example: caulking that claims to be Energy Star certified. Energy Star doesn’t certify caulking as being an Energy Star product.

For more on green labeling programs and third-party certification companies, see visit

What to Ask
Patricia Gaylor, owner of Eco Interiors in Little Falls and an expert in sustainable interior design, suggests asking these questions about the products and services you are considering:

1. Where did it come from and how was it made?

2. How much energy and fuel will it take to get here?

3. What will happen when I’m done using it (will it end up in a landfill)?