Spot the Greenwash

Posted on December 10, 2007


Here’s something else for the “low hanging curricula“. All students should be able to recognise these “Six Sins of Greenwashing” from Terrachoice (pdf, and podcast on Greenbiz radio).

Green·wash (grēn’wŏsh’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

We’ve discussed before how one of the barriers to sustainability is the sudden rise of green marketing. We’ve talked about how consumers need to be critical of greenwash and a feeling of “they’re all green” when we know they’re not.

Terrachoice used these six sins to analyse the environmental claims on 1,018 products. All but one committed at least one sin. The sins are (along with questions that might lead to realising this wrongdoing).

1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: Is the “green” claim restricted to just one, or a narrow set of environmental issue(s)?
2. Sin of No Proof: Does the claim help me find more information and evidence?

3. Sin of Vagueness: Is the environmental and scientific meaning of the claim specific and self-evident? If not, is the specific meaning given?
4. Sin of Irrelevance: Could all of the other products in this category make the same claim?
5. Sin of Fibbing: When I check up on it, is the claim true?
6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: Is the claim trying to make consumers feel “green” about a product category that is of questionable environmental benefit?

The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off is committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute (the recycled content of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes (recycled content and chlorine free bleaching) without attention to other important, or perhaps more important, environmental issues (such as energy, global warming, water, and forestry impacts of paper). Such claims are not usually false, but are used to paint a “greener” picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would support.

Unfortunately their list of sample products didn’t include computers.

Related links: US FTC Guidelines, Canadian sustainable consumption, a project plan from Simon Fraser University to investigate computing greenwash. Here’s a short course from Thinkport on Greenwash. GreenBiz’s Scot Case interview.