The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

"Green" Labels Could Be Misleading

"Green" Labels Could Be  Misleading


March 30, 2008

“Green” Labels Could Be Misleading
Our passion for all things green is growing by the minute. A recent USA TODAY poll found that Americans are willing to spend more money to help the environment. More than two-thirds of respondents said they should use only fluorescent bulbs in their homes. Sixty-two percent said they should buy a gas-saving hybrid car. In fact, last year, consumers did just that. In 2007, sales of the Earth-friendly Toyota Prius actually surpassed sales of our country’s most popular SUV – the Ford Explorer.
Consumers appear ready to put their money where their mouth is on going green, and retailers are jumping on board. To do so, they are identifying environmentally sound products with labels touting their green-ness. But some of these “green” labels could be misleading, says TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based environmental marketing group. They took a look at green marketing claims made by six category-leading big box stores and identified 1,018 consumer products carrying 1,753 environmental claims.
What they found was alarming. All but one of the 1,018 products contained language that was potentially false or misleading. The study helped TerraChoice identify six patterns or “sins” in what they call “greenwashing,” a term for deceptive or ambiguous green marketing claims. They are the sin of the hidden trade-off, the sin of no proof, the sin of vagueness, the sin of irrelevance, the sin of fibbing and the sin of the lesser of two evils.
“Greenwashing generally relates to marketing practices that are either false or run the risk of misleading the intended audience. Although most of the time this type of marketing is unintentional, and instead a result of the pitfalls of communicating a topic that is newer to marketers, greenwashing in an area of poor marketing that needs to be addressed and corrected,” says Scott McDougall, President of TerraChoice.
A product with “hidden trade-offs” suggests that it is green based on a single environmental attribute, like the recycled content of paper. While these claims are not usually false, they leave out the impact of their manufacturing practices on things like air and water emissions. “No-proof” items bear claims that cannot be supported, like a household light that promotes energy efficiency without certification, or products that claim they are not tested on animals without displaying evidence of this claim.
Other “sinful” products, like those bearing the sin of “fibbing,” make claims that are straight-out false. Though these items are in the minority, they are still worth taking note of. One product in particular claimed to be packaged in “100% recycled paper” when it was actually packaged in plastic. Another product claiming to be “Energy Star” registered was not registered as such on the “Energy Star” website.
Meanwhile, “irrelevant” claims tended to flaunt their “CFC-free” status (an odd assertion considering CFC’s have been legally banned for almost 30 years), and “vague” claims honed in on their “all natural” characteristics (under these claims, arsenic, which is poisonous, could be labeled natural). The “lesser of two evils” products are more self-explanatory. Organic cigarettes and “green” insecticides, by their very nature, offer questionable environmental value.
Calling these claims sins may seem a bit extreme on the surface, however, McDougall says that misleading consumers into thinking that their purchases will save the world is indeed unconscionable.
“We chose to call these practices ‘sins’ because the consequences for marketers and the environment will be severe if they are not mitigated,” McDougall says. “Generally sound green products could lose competitive advantage if less generally green claims are rewarded in the marketplace. There are many other possible negative consequences as well.”
Products with illegitimate green marketing claims can take sales away from products that offer legitimate benefits, says McDougall, slowing environmental innovation in the marketplace. Plus, he says, customers can be mislead into buying products they believe to be environmentally sound, thus squandering the potential benefits of their purchase. Perhaps most significantly, greenwashing can lead to doubt in consumers about all environmental claims, which can negatively affect future green purchase decisions.
Although organizations like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the International Organization for Standardization issue guidelines for the proper use of environmental claims and information, greenwashing practices are still abundant. Concerned consumers should look for products that are third-party certified and wearing eco-labels from “EcoLogo” or “Green Seal.” At the same time, McDougall says marketers should work to improve their claims so that they can build a more effective dialogue with their consumers.
“The first thing that marketers need to understand is that marketing an environmental claim is different than marketing subjective things like color or flavor, because you are marketing an empirical truth,” he says. “To avoid greenwashing, start with good sound, scientific understanding of the environmental impact of your product, be completely honest with your consumers, and ask your consumers to join you on a journey to ever-greener performance.”