A week ago I had the oppurtunity to attend the Cooking For Solutions Event held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The discussions Thursday were insightful and provided much to contemplate. Over the next few weeks, as I find time, I will post on numerous topics that arose at the event.
One of the interesting concepts, and one that I was unfamiliar with, was ‘green washing’. We are familiar with the act even if we do not know it by name. It was discussed by Gene Kahn, currently VP and Global Sustainability Officer for General MIlls. He is a pioneer of the organic food and farming movement and founder of Cascadian Farms Inc. and Small Planet Foods.
Green washing is the 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.
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.
I have been thinking about green washing a lot lately as Rick and I are trying to fairly evaluate Nautilus claims on the potential environmental impact to deep-sea habitats of their mining activities.