Green Police: Green products still making questionable claims

Green PoliceThe good news is that there are a lot more environmentally friendly products on the market (73% more than 2009), and that greenwashing has declined. The bad news is that nearly all green products on the market (more than 95%) commit at least one of the "Seven Sins of Greenwashing."

The seven sins list and the annual survey are produced by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company associated with the Underwriters Laboratory. Scott McDougall, the group's president, sees a small increase in the percentage of "sin free" products (from 2% to 4.5% of the 5,296 products examined in the U.S. and Canada) as "early evidence of a positive and long-lasting trend." Home and family products showed a definite uptick in green reliability.

The Seven Sins are worth repeating here, since they're comprehensive and exacting (in one case, a bit too exacting). I would add only one category: products that claim certification by dubious, industry-created groups with green-sounding names like The Green Forest Council. Their standards are often so lax a clear-cutter would get certified.

  1. Sin of the hidden trade-off. These products claim superiority in one category, and maybe achieve it, but leave out a lot of other criteria. In the case of paper, this would mean claiming it comes from sustainably harvested trees, without also reporting on energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, chlorine use, and air and water pollution. This is the one that seems too stringent, because a critic's list of what should be included as part of disclosure is fairly arbitrary, and subject to the imposition of super-green conditions that no company could meet.
  2. Sin of no proof. If I claim environmental attributes (like percentage of post-consumer recycled content) but don't offer evidence, I'm guilty of this sin.
  3. Sin of vagueness. This is incredibly widespread. My colleague Sally Deneen has written about the abuse of the phrase "all natural." The term is essentially meaningless. As she pointed out, only meat and poultry is regulated for use of "all natural." Almost anything can be defined as "natural," even arsenic and other poisons.
  4. Sin of irrelevance. There are a lot of these, usually based on citing a bugaboo substance that wouldn't be in the product anyway. "CFC-Free" when CFCs are banned is one example, and another is "no preservatives" on products that have no need of them.
  5. Sin of lesser of two evils. These products try to paint un-redeemable products green. Hybrid versions of huge SUVs are one example. Bottled water in thinner, lighter, "better for the environment" plastic is another example. That one contains a double benefit, because thinner bottles are also cheaper to make. In hotels, unwashed towels don't really "save the environment," but they do save on laundry bills.
  6. Sin of fibbing. This doesn't happen that often, but sometimes companies just lie about their products' green virtues. Failed Energy Star certification? Claim it anyway! Instances of Energy Star abuse are up, and the feds are tightening controls.
  7. Sin of worshiping false labels. Related to fibbing, it's claiming a certification or third-party endorsement when it doesn't actually exist.

energy starOne new trend is new products that claim to be "BPA-Free" or "Phthalate-Free." The former showed a 577% increase, and the latter a 2,550% rise. Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics softer, and they present a health hazard to children who chew on toys containing them.

BPA is Bisphenol A, and it's a potent chemical used in plastic baby bottles, among other products. The threat of it leaching into bottle contents has caused many families to switch to glass. It's obviously important for these chemical-free claims not to commit the "sin of fibbing."

TerraChoice found some clearly positive trends. Companies that went green a while ago are committing fewer greenwashing offenses because they've learned the ropes. The green consumer is a tough judge and will call them on it. Also, big-box stores are adding green products at a rapid clip. Who would have thought that Walmart would become a leading retailer of CFL bulbs?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed an Energy Star-like federal program for environmentally friendly products, which would give them a green certificate as recognizable as the Good Housekeeping Seal. That makes sense, but don't expect a bill creating a new federal program to penetrate the current anti-regulatory mood in Congress.

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