Eco-Friendly Product Claims Often Misleading

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No CFCs label

CFCs have been banned for decades, making claims that the products are CFC-free virtually meaningless, TerraChoice says. TerraChoice hide caption

itoggle caption TerraChoice
EcoLogo and Green Seal labels

Independent third-party labels such as EcoLogo and Green Seal are an easy way to tell whether a product is truly environmentally friendly, says Scot Case of the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice. TerraChoice hide caption

itoggle caption TerraChoice

America's store shelves are filled with products claiming to be good for the environment. Everything from shampoos and cleaning agents to granola bars claim to be "natural" and "earth friendly." But some environmentalists think you're being "greenwashed."

One of them is Scot Case, with the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice.

The firm says it found 1,018 products that made environmental claims, ranging from toothpaste to office paper, on retail shelves of six big-box retailers.

"When we dug a little deeper, we were actually shocked to discover that all but one were committing what we're now calling one of the Six Sins of Greenwashing," Case tells Steve Inskeep. The one product was paper napkins, but Case says the firm decided not to name specific products.

"There were examples of shampoos that claimed to be certified organic, yet when we investigated and tried to find any sort of evidence of certification, we found none," Case says.

The biggest sin was the sin of the hidden tradeoff — products that promote a single issue, such as recycled content, Case says. "That's important, but there are a wide variety of additional environmental considerations: Was there any pollution during the manufacturing phase? What are the aspects of the product that aren't made of recycled content — are they also environmentally friendly?"

'The Six Sins of Greenwashing'

The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice evaluated more than 1,000 retail products for their environmental claims. Based on its research, the firm came up with what it calls "The Six Sins of Greenwashing."

1. The Sin of the Hidden Tradeoff 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 environmental issues (such as energy, global warming, water, and forestry impacts of paper).

Examples:

• Paper and lumber products that promote their recycled content or sustainable harvesting practices without attention to manufacturing impacts such as air emissions, water emissions, and global warming impacts.

• Household insulation products that claim indoor air-quality benefits without attention to other environmental aspects, such as recycled content and manufacturing impacts.

2. The Sin of No Proof. Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. TerraChoice says "no proof" occurred if supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase or at the product Web site.

Examples:

• Household lamps and lights that promote their energy efficiency without any supporting evidence or certification.

• Personal care products (such as shampoos and conditioners) that claim not to have been tested on animals, but offer no evidence or certification of this claim.

• Facial tissues and paper towels that claim post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.

3. The Sin of Vagueness is committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer.

Examples:

• "Chemical-free." In fact, nothing is free of chemicals. Water is a chemical. All plants, animals, and humans are made of chemicals as are all of our products.

• "Non-toxic." Everything is toxic in sufficient dosage. Water, oxygen and salt are all potentially hazardous.

• "All Natural." Arsenic is natural. So are uranium, mercury and formaldehyde. All are poisonous.

• "Green," "environmentally friendly," and "eco-conscious," which are meaningless without elaboration.

4. The Sin of Irrelevance is committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. It distracts the consumer from finding a truly greener option.

The most frequent example of an irrelevant claim relates to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — a principal contributor to ozone depletion. Since CFCs have been legally banned for almost 30 years, there are no products that are manufactured with it. Such products included CFC-free insecticides, lubricants and disinfectants.

5. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils. These are "green" claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. TerraChoice considers a claim to commit the Sin of Lesser of Two Evils when environmental qualifiers such as "organic" or "green" are placed on products in which the entire product category is of questionable environmental value.

Examples:

• Organic cigarettes.

• "Green" insecticides and herbicides.

6. The Sin of Fibbing is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.

Examples:

• Several shampoos that claimed to be "certified organic," but for which our research could find no such certification.

• A caulking product that claims to be "Energy Star" registered, but the official Energy Star Web site suggests this is false.

• A dishwasher detergent that purports to be packaged in "100% recycled paper," and yet the container is plastic.

Source: TerraChoice

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