Greenwashing has become a sufficiently widespread problem that the term now has an entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A more comprehensive definition, however, can be found here in the Dictionary of Sustainable Management - the nub of it being that it's the practice of attaching a positive environmental association with an unsustainable product of service.
Ramon Arratia of InterfaceFLOR explains that the practice is harmful not only to the environment, but also to sustainable industries themselves.
1) Myriad claims for nebulous attributes such as 'low carbon', 'recyclable' and 'natural' are often either misleading, or meaningless, since those claims are typically unsubstantiated or unquantified.
2) Eco-labeling is often found to be unreliable due to a lack of independent validation by third parties,
3) Manufacturers are often required to make payments to the owner of the eco-label in order to display it on their products, risking low-bar standards for qualification.
4) The overlap and duplication among different eco-labeling bodies forces manufacturers to certify products several times over.
The result is a confused or misled populace, who cannot be assured they are making smart choices, and an industry that runs the risk of compromising its credibility. But while the above factors may give rise to greenwashing, is it that greenwashing itself is bad for industry or simply that the proliferation of (even well-intentioned) eco-labels makes it almost impossible to call out the disingenuous?
If there were fewer labeling standards out there, confusion amongst consumers would likely diminish, since it's currently impossible for people to get their heads around them all. The Ecolabel Index website currently lists 378 such labels and it's a useful resource for engaged consumers to research the credentials of each. You will notice things like country specific labeling, company specific labeling, as well as more obvious ones such as industry specific labeling.
But with such a vast array of labels, greenwashing can insidiously take place since its practitioners can operate while embedded amongst those genuinely trading in a sustainable manner. Since so many products are part of global supply chains, it seems that a trend towards fewer global label certifications would be beneficial. This article by Reeve Consulting suggests that there is indeed greater collaboration and consolidation now taking place among those in the sustainable labeling field, which will be beneficial to all.
With any industry, in the early days there tends to be a proliferation of companies vying for dominance, while over time, competition and merger activity narrows the field to just a few that become household name brands. Perhaps with eco-labeling, this is what is happening now. If consumers can reliably begin to attach credible association with fewer well known and well understood labels, greenwashing companies will cease to have a place to hide out - and industries in the business of sustainable products and services will be the better off for it.
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.