The Six Sins of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a relatively new pejorative term for the process wherein corporations attempt to portray their product as environmentally friendly through deceptive means. Its meaning has broadened over the years to encompass a whole range of marketing practises. In the twenty-first century companies are not content to be neutral, but want to be seen to embrace the new green consciousness that is coming to inform consumer choices. The problem is that some companies are willing to do almost anything to label their products in some way eco-friendly. With this development in mind the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, a new report from TerraChoice, is an attempt to reassert truly independent third-party assessors such as EcoLogo or Green Seal. By allowing companies to assess their own eco-friendliness we open ourselves to all manner of potential loopholes or to the process of Greenwashing. The “Six Sins of Greenwashing” is an attempt to explore this exercise in misdirection, and the results are startling:

In an effort to describe, understand and quantify the growth of Greenwashing, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. conducted a survey of six category-leading big box stores. Through these surveys, we identified 1,018 consumer products bearing 1, 753 environmental claims. Of these 1,018 products examined, all but one made claims that are demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences. - The Six Sins of Greenwashing (1.2mb PDF)
  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
  2. Sin of No Proof
  3. Sin of Vagueness
  4. Sin of Irrelevance
  5. Sin of Fibbing
  6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
The study coincides with an increased interest in the inner workings of environmental marketing as popularized by George Monbiot (see clip at bottom). The report’s immediate findings suggest that the effects on consumers are far-reaching. Greenwashing has the dual effect of inducing an element of doubt into all green claims so that authentic attempts at being green are rendered null thus reducing the incentive on the part of corporations to have a truly green product. It’s a keen insight, but the true value of the study is in identifying how corporations go about their Greenwashing. The first of the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” is the ‘Sin of the Hidden Trade’ and it represents something of a Greenwashing trade standard. More than half the products tested were guilty of this sin which is attributable to its simplicity. The hidden-trade is an exercise in misdirection in which a minor green attribute is highlighted over a number of environmentally detrimental ones. By subsuming the wider picture under this one claim the other problems simply disappear. The next sin, the ‘Sin of No Proof,’ represented just over a quarter of products and employs a similar tactic. The ‘Sin of No Proof’ simply makes it impossible to verify a products claim to environmental friendliness by not providing any certification. This sin is far more dubious since it extends the misdirection to outright deception.

Another prominent sin, and historically common to all marketing, is the ‘Sin of Vagueness.’ This kind of Greenwashing is the most familiar depending as it does on those most malleable of things: words. This method plays around with the green register so that words are employed either frivolously (eco-friendly, environmentally friendly) or are plain meaningless (all-natural, chemical free). The ‘Sin of Irreverence’ is more of an annoying trend considering that it makes statements that are pointless. One example is the claim that a product is CFC-free which, as the report reminds us, has been the case with all products for thirty-years. A strange kind of retroactive eco-friendliness! On the minor end of the scale are the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ sin and the ‘Fibbing Sin.’ The ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ sin does exactly as one might imagine stating that something intrinsically un-green might be greened at all such as pesticides or herbicides. Like the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ sin the ‘Fibbing Sin’ accounts for only 1% of products tested, but both are clearly among the gravest of sins that can be committed against the green consumer.

The inference the report draws is that despite numerous attempts to regulate environmental claims in advertising/marketing the practise of Greenwashing remains prolific, and so there is a responsibility placed upon the consumer to tackle the “Six Sins of Greenwashing.” By attempting to purchase products with the broader picture in mind a number of Greenwashing sins can be bypassed. The consumer has a few tools to respond with including eco-labels (a list is included in the reports appendix), but we are also provided with an arsenal of questions to keep in mind when choosing products ethically. The report is not only laying the onus on the consumer. The marketer is given a set of recommendations to take on board as well, and rightly so. The concluding remarks of the report claim it is not an attempt to scare off consumers, but an attempt help them make informed decisions and on this level it certainly succeeds. Green marketing has the potential to be a highly positive direction for greening the economy and the report implies that it may provide the impetus for a genuinely competitive drive that benefits the consumer, business and ultimately the planet. The “Six Sins of Greenwashing” provides the consumer with a neat set of dangers to watch out for, but also enough pointers to help counteract the inevitable bout of cynicism one encounters when they read the initial statistic of the report.

Scott McDougall on Greenwashing


George Monbiot Dispatches: Greenwashing Part I

George Monbiot Dispatches: Greenwashing Part II

George Monbiot Dispatches: Greenwashing Part III

George Monbiot Dispatches: Greenwashing Part IV

George Monbiot Dispatches: Greenwashing Part V


Further reading:

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  • Posted on Nov. 19, 2007. Listed in:

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