A-Z of greenwashing

Ever since snake oil salesmen first peddled their wares, where there’s money to be made, there’s someone fudging the truth …

Aerosol sprays, bottled water and mid-winter punnets of strawberries airfreighted from America are never going to be eco-friendly. Even if they’re packaged in recyclable bottles or grown from heirloom seeds on organic farms. Adding eco-friendly details to a product that’s problematic by nature is like painting an elephant with leopard spots. It might be a prettier colour, but it’s still an elephant.

Broad claims such as ‘eco friendly’ or ‘better for the earth’ are against New Zealand law, unless the whole lifecycle of the product (from manufacture to disposal) can be shown to have no negative impact on the environment. “We don’t know of any companies that could prove such a claim – yet,” says green marketing expert and University of Auckland tutor Kath Dewar.

Caring for your skin involves using natural products, right? Wrong. ‘Natural’ doesn’t always mean ‘good for you’. Toxic substances such as mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde (found in some nail polishes) and lead (an ingredient in some lipsticks) are all totally natural.

Donations to charity are great, but don’t let a company’s support of a cause keep you from asking questions about its products. A clothing brand might promote the school it built for its Cambodian garment workers, for instance. That’s excellent! But are those workers paid fairly? Are they obligated to work overtime? Are the chemicals used on the fabric safe and are those chemicals and fabric dyes disposed of responsibly, or discharged into local rivers?

Exaggeration rather than downright lying is at the root of most greenwashing, according to Canadian research firm TerraChoice’s Greenwashing Report. In 2010, more than 95 percent of ‘green’ products TerraChoice surveyed were guilty of at least one form of greenwashing. Worst offenders included DIY building materials, cleaning products, children’s toys and consumer electronics. Check out the site here to learn more.

Frolicking dolphins on packaging give the impression that what’s inside is good for all kinds of marine life. It pays to be on guard when confronted with cute animals. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

Green colours have been adopted so widely by brands with shonky eco-cred that green-hued packaging is best approached with a little suspicion. Genuine eco products are often typically packaged in neutral shades, as natural-coloured packaging doesn’t require bleaching or toxic dyes.

How’s this relevant? Ask yourself if a company has addressed the biggest challenge it faces.  “For example, are greenhouse gas emissions a big deal for a detergent manufacturer or might water pollution be more important?” asks Kath. While Unilever’s recent switch to recycled packaging in its laundry brands Persil, Surf, Omo, Drive and Comfort is commendable, its Cleaner Planet Plan seems to have missed a vital point – whether or not its detergents harm marine life.

Inventing logos that look like certification schemes might be a fun assignment for graphic design students, but unfair coming from multinationals that can afford third-party audits. Fake logos are surprisingly popular – 32 percent of ‘green’ products surveyed in 2010 by TerraChoice sported one, and a fake logo outscored real ones in a new Colmar Brunton survey of New Zealand brands. Another trick: claiming defunct ISO standards. Use Google-fu (that’s internet searching for ninjas) to check out unfamiliar certification schemes. 

Just telling it like it is is a sign of a genuinely green brand. Honest companies are up-front about what they need to change in order to reduce their impact on the planet. “They aren’t afraid to admit what work they have yet do to,” says Kath. One example is sportswear brand Puma, who made public the biggest eco impacts in their supply chain – so they can work on improving them.

Keep in mind the impact of a product isn’t measured simply by what you have in hand. Behind each one is a process – supply of raw materials, production, packing, shipping, distribution and end-of-life disposal. Look for certification schemes such as carboNZero or Environmental Choice (which is endorsed by the government) – both assess a company’s entire operation, not just the end product.

Look for proof of claims made. If furniture is labelled as made from sustainably harvested wood, which independent certification scheme does it belong to? If a car claims to be more fuel efficient, where and under what conditions was it tested? “Look for suppliers who provide detail in ads or on packaging and link to more detailed information online,” suggests Kath.

Made in New Zealand is a big tick in a product’s favour, considering the product won’t have travelled over a major ocean to get to you and the person who made it received a living wage. Look for the words ‘Product of New Zealand’ on food items, meaning the ingredients were grown here. The description ‘Made in New Zealand’ allows ingredients to be cultivated overseas but processed onshore.

Nuclear waste is biodegradable – it just takes half a million years to decompose, says Ecostore head honcho Malcolm Rand. Biodegradable products should be clear about the timeframe, temperature and conditions required for degradation to occur. Look out for compostable packaging, which is more likely to degrade quickly and easily.

Organic products need to validate their claims with an independent certification scheme such as AsureQuality or BioGro, as the use of the word ‘organic’ in New Zealand is loosely regulated.

Praising companies that change in response to criticism goes a long way towards making ‘becoming green’ an appealing prospect for other brands. “As consumers demand greener products and companies race to meet that demand, they will advance the cause of environmental sustainability … more rapidly and efficiently than any government intervention,” says TerraChoice’s Greenwashing report.

Questioning companies if they haven’t provided enough information about a product shows consumers are interested in these issues. As a customer, you have a right to ask where your clothing was made or if the cocoa farmers behind your chocolate bar received a fair wage.

Replacing a well known nasty ingredient for a less famous nasty one is a clever trick. Take parabens – synthetic chemicals used to stop moisturiser going mouldy. These can mess with your hormone levels and give you a rash, so many skincare products now advertise themselves as ‘paraben-free’. But it pays to make sure another equally unfriendly chemical has not been used in its place.

Savvy shoppers know what questions they need to ask about different products. For household cleaners, it might be: ‘Does this pollute once it goes down the drain’? For clothing, it’s ‘Was this made by someone who received a fair wage?’ For food: ‘How far has this travelled?’ or ‘Has this been ethically produced?’  For children’s toys: ‘Is there any proof that this doesn’t contain toxic substances?’

Talking up one aspect of a product that’s good for the planet and ignoring everything that’s not is one of TerraChoice’s top “sins of greenwashing”. Paper products giant Kimberly-Clark came under fire in the States for touting that its tissue boxes were made from recycled paper – while the tissues inside weren’t. Nor was the paper from sustainably managed trees. Angry that virgin forests were being pulped and marketed as ‘green’, consumers took their outrage to the internet and Kimberly-Clark changed its product.

Unimportant or irrelevant details are another tactic of distraction. For example, some fridges are still advertised as being CFC-free despite the fact CFC has been banned in New Zealand for more than 15 years.

Vague happy words such as earth, planet, gentle, care, natural, botanical, bio, clean and environment are used all the time on product labels. We wish they meant something specific!

Waffly language runs rampant in the descriptions of many ‘green’ products – especially those in the beauty aisle. If reading the back of the bottle causes you to become bamboozled by scientific-sounding jargon, or claims that the product’s hero ingredient, unicorn tears, will cleanse your flux capacitor, proceed on to letters X and Y.

Excoriate (verb) to denounce or berate severely; the appropriate response to companies that fudge the truth.

You are the main line of defense between greenwashed products and unsuspecting friends and family. There’s no one out there whose job it is to look out for dodgy claims. The Advertising Standards Authority (www.asa.co.nz) investigates complaints, but don’t actively search out products that break their guidelines. If a product really gets your goat – go on, complain!

Zillions of great new products enter the market every year. Most of us dash through the supermarket as fast as possible, grabbing the usual staples. Have a squiz around the aisles every so often to see what’s new. If something strikes you as dodgy, make a note (or snap it on your camera phone) and give your superhero cape a twirl.

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