Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Some Business "green" Boasts Are Suspect

Buyers should beware of misleading, irrelevant claims

Products from air fresheners to toothpastes lure consumers with promises of eco-friendly ingredients, but can they back up their boasts?

A new survey suggests that many companies' green claims are as authentic as a $20 Gucci handbag at a flea market.

Virtually all -- 99 percent -- of more than 1,000 products plucked from supermarkets and box stores falsely claimed green credentials, according to "The Six Sins of Greenwashing," a survey by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc., a Pennsylvania-based environmental marketing firm. Neither the products nor their manufacturers were identified, but products ranged from deodorant to oven cleaner.

"Consumers are inundated with products that make green claims. Some are accurate, while others are just plain fibbing to sell products," said Scott McDougall, president of TerraChoice. He said the goal is to educate consumers so "they can buy green with confidence."

Consumers should look for:

The sin of the hidden trade-off: Nearly 1,000 of 1,018 products suggest that a product is better merely because it contains a so-called green ingredient -- recycled paper, for instance -- but fail to mention that the product contains a hazardous material.

The sin of no proof: A quarter of the products claimed to be "organic" but with no verifiable certification.

The sin of vagueness: Eleven percent of products claimed to be 100 percent natural, but that alone does not mean a product is "eco-friendly," as many naturally occurring substances are hazardous.

The sin of irrelevance: In labeling on 78 products, manufacturers patted themselves on the back for leaving out hazardous ingredients that were banned by law.

The sin of the lesser of two evils: Researchers singled out makers of organic cigarettes and environmentally friendly pesticides because their products pose a hazard but are marketed as a healthful alternative. Seventeen products fell into that category.

The sin of fibbing: About 10 manufacturers falsely claimed that they met a recognized environmental standard but did not.

The survey's findings inspired the marketing firm to coin a new word, "greenwashing." TerraChoice's staff defines it as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

"We want consumers to leave with a healthy skepticism regarding environmental claims," said Scot Case, TerraChoice's vice president and one of the survey authors. "People are using their resources to buy greener products. We hope they will be much harder to fool."

Drawing attention to potentially misleading green claims is a good idea, said Ronald Bailey, a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. Yet he questioned how concerned consumers should be.

"I'm not going to disagree with a lot of what they say. Consumers are interested in this information, and it's important for business to give them that kind of information," Bailey said.
"But there are so many dimensions of green. Who decides what's OK and how worried should we be about them?"

TerraChoice hopes to put pressure on manufacturers to develop standards to back up their environmental credentials and adhere to "eco-labeling" programs such as Canada's EcoLogo.
The program, launched in 1988 and similar to the federal EnergyStar energy-conservation program, helps.

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