Green washing is misleading publicity or propaganda designed to present an image of environmental responsibility. TerraChoice has a nice list of the Six Sins of Green Washing.
- Hidden Trade Off, in which companies highlight one eco-friendly attribute, and ignore their product’s other (potentially more significant) environmental concerns. “Okay, this product comes from a sustainably harvested forest, but what are the impacts of its milling and transportation?”
- No Proof, which, just like it sounds, involves claims that can’t be verified (the report found 26% of environmental claims fall into this category).
- Vagueness in terms such as “chemical-free,” or “non-toxic,” which are both universally true, and universally false depending on your interpretation. Other examples “organic?”, “all-natural”, “environmentally-friendly”, and “earth-friendly.”
- Irrelevance, when companies make claims that, while true, are unhelpful (like “CFC-free,” when CFCs have been banned for almost 30 years).
- Lesser of Two Evils, like “green” herbicides, which ignores the fact that herbicides in any form aren’t good for the environment.
- Fibbing. The most obvious, in which companies flat out lie (less than 1% of companies make this mistake, but does happen). Examples include use of third party certifications like “certified-organic” or “Forest Stewardship Council” without consent.
Southern Fried Science finds that Orange Roughy, a decidedly not sustainable fishery, is being marketed as such. This is similar to my finding that Pacific Supreme salmon was actually Atlantic farm-raised salmon. Earlier this year French grocer Leclerc fended off criticisms from Greenpeace that its sustainable seafood initiatives were misleading. Stateside, Greenpeace also targeted Trader Joe’s for simultaneous promoting a culture of organic and healthy foods while carrying such unsustainable fishes as Chilean Sea Bass. Pressure from customers and Greenpeace resultes in Trader Joe’s to begin phasing out these fish, among many others non-sustainably harvested, from their stores to be completed by 2012.
The consumer should also beware of seafood marketed as local. Typically, we assume that eating locally caught, grown, or produced foods is better because of the reduced carbon footprint. But eating local may fall short when considering fish. For example, eating the red listed Atlantic cod, even if you live on the Atlantic coast, is unadvisable.
Alarmingly, the effects of green washing can be significant.
Well-intentioned consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise. This means both that the individual consumer has been misled and that the potential environmental benefit of his or her purchase has been squandered. Competitive pressure from illegitimate environmental claims takes market share away from products that offer more legitimate benefits, thus slowing the penetration of real environmental innovation in the marketplace. Greenwashing may create cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims. Consumers – particularly those who care most about real environmental progress – may give up on marketers and manufacturers, and give up on the hope that their spending might be put to good use. This would eliminate a significant market-based, financial incentive for green product innovation and leave committed environmental advocates with government regulations as the most likely alternative.