Paint the Town Green: Greenwashing Still Alive and Well

The word “natural” doesn’t offer specific information about what’s in a product.

By: Daniel Daggett

Environmentally friendly. Recyclable. Non-toxic. If you’re purchasing a product or using a service that touts these claims, you would assume that you’re supporting a responsible organization. But what if those attributes were only being promoted to sell the product or service, and didn’t necessarily hold their weight under closer review? Greenwashing is more common than you may think.

A 2010 analysis of nearly 5,300 home and family products found that 95 percent made problematic green claims. With many consumers in search of environmentally friendly products, it’s worrying that many claims are exaggerated or completely unsupported. So how can consumers spot greenwashing during the purchasing process? And what safeguards are in place to prevent unscrupulous marketers from unfairly targeting consumers?

The watchdog of greenwashing

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) serves to maintain competition in the marketplace and protect consumers from fraudulent business practices. In 2012, in response to the rise of greenwashing, the FTC revised its guidelines on environmental claims to ensure that they are truthful, relevant and verifiable. During the purchase process, consumers should ask themselves three questions. Are the company’s claims accurate? Do the claims relate to the product? For instance, a lead-free claim for a cleaning product is irrelevant because these products shouldn’t ever contain lead. And finally, can the claims be scientifically proven with data?

The FTC’s guidelines help protect consumers from potentially vague, broad or misleading claims, such as recyclable, non-toxic, compostable, degradable, “free-of” and more. For example, the FTC states that in order for a product to be truly recyclable, it must be able to “be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.” And items that are only partially recyclable should clearly state which components can be recycled and which cannot. Responsible organizations follow the appropriate guidelines and clearly define the specific environmental benefits of their product or service rather than using generic, potentially deceptive language.

Third-party certifications

With so many “green” labels and claims floating around, some of which are manufacturer-created, buyers are left wanting more credibility from companies. Sixty-five percent of consumers around the world agree or strongly agree that they would purchase more environmentally responsible products if the health and environmental claims made by companies were more believable. Certifications are an answer to this issue, because they assure that a sustainable product meets a certain set of performance criteria. However, not all certifications are created equal.

Some certifications are industry-led, and therefore not entirely independent. The Global Ecolabelling Network is a non-profit network of 27 independent organizations representing more than 50 countries that seeks to establish a set of standards and framework for environmental certifications. In North America, members include UL Environment and Green Seal Inc.

For products that have reduced the impact on the environment, UL administers ECOLOGO Certification, a multi-attribute sustainable product certification, while products with low chemical emissions that contribute to better air quality are recognized with the GREENGUARD Certification. UL also provides Environmental Claim Validation (ECV) which evaluates product’s specific environmental attributes, such as recycled content and VOC content. For consumers, the ECV is especially important because it uses a science-backed method to validate specific claims that a company makes about their products. Recent research from UL further validates the importance of third-party certifications. The organization’s 2015 study polled more than 1,000 U.S. consumers and found that when evaluating green claims, 93 percent of consumers noted a certification as one of their top three factors for choosing a product.

Sustainability: becoming non-negotiable?

Over the years, sustainability has transformed from something that only a few people cared about to a sought-after feature of products and services. In fact, according to the 2014 Eco Pulse study by the Shelton Group, 70 percent of Americans are searching for greener products.

In addition to consumers, businesses are also stepping up their commitment to the planet. Many organizations are specifically interested in solutions that will make a measurable impact in the areas of public safety, waste, energy and water. After all, sustainability has a positive impact on not just the environment, but society and the economy. A 2014 analysis of S&P 500 companies found that businesses that incorporate sustainable practices have an 18 percent higher ROI compared with non-sustainable competitors.

In some parts of the world, sustainability is simply viewed as an added benefit rather than a must-have. However, more and more, industries and organizations are defining sustainability and green practices as requirements. For example, some state laws require products used in government buildings to carry third-party certifications, demonstrating their environmental performance. Additionally, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) v4 for Building Operations and Maintenance requires buildings pursuing LEED to use certified products and practice green cleaning, whereas this was previously considered an optional credit.

As sustainability continues to be a top-of-mind concern for businesses and consumers, third-party certifications and responsible marketing will become more important for curbing the practice of greenwashing and driving business success. UL’s 2015 survey found that nearly 60 percent of consumers would pay up to 10 percent more for a product with third-party certifications. If credibility is so valuable to buyers and lucrative to businesses, there’s no reason not to have your product or service vetted and certified by an independent organization.

Daniel Daggett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director- Global Sustainability at Sealed Air, where he is responsible for developing and implementing sustainability strategies across the business. For more information, visit https://sealedair.com/.

Image credit: Health Gauge, Flickr

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