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When green products go bad March 31, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, change, communication, consumer, environment, food, nature.
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terrachoice-greenwasher.jpgIn case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a green revolution over the past few decades — at least in the industrialized world — and it’s turned our buying and trashing habits upside-down. Small grassroots initiatives have led to local programs such as recycling, support for products such as organic foods, and increased government regulation. Not surprisingly, now that the corporate world has cottoned on to the financial benefits of “being green”, there’s also an increase in the amount of skepticism from consumers.

Generally speaking, skepticism is a good thing; a responsible consumer should ask questions and do research before making a decision. And the research shows some claims about so-called green goods are insupportable.

According to a recent news report, Canada’s Competition Bureau and the Canadian Standards Association will be soon releasing national guidelines on the use of recycling, chemical-related and other environmental terms. The new guidelines are designed to prevent companies from making vague claims. For example, instead of simply saying a product is recycled, a company will now have to say how much of its content is from recycled materials. Companies will also not be allowed to say products are free of chemicals or substances if the products never contained those items in the first place. Any eco-friendly statements will have to be backed up with data.

The Competition Bureau, an independent law enforcement agency, was spurred to act following a New York Times report that questioned environmental claims made by clothing company Lululemon. In November 2007, the Bureau forced Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica to remove any references to the therapeutic benefits of its VitaSea clothing products because it made claims that could not be verified. The clothing’s advertising said it would release minerals and vitamins in to the wearer’s skin when wet and could improve skin in a variety of ways and reduce stress.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also in the process of updating its guidelines for environmental marketing by holding workshops to get consumer input on terms like recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable along with perceptions of third-party certification of green claims.

At the same time, TerraChoice (which regulates the use of the Ecologo certification) released a study of 1,018 “green” products from big-box stores which found that all but one were marketed with false or misleading eco-claims. Researchers claimed these products were committing what they called the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”:

  1. a hidden tradeoff (e.g. toxin-loaded electronics touting their energy efficiency);
  2. no certifiable verification of green claims;
  3. flat-out lying about certification;
  4. vagueness (e.g. products claiming “all natural” status, which could include hazardous substances that occur naturally);
  5. irrelevance (e.g. products claiming to be CFC-free even though CFCs have long been banned)
  6. or a lesser of two evils (e.g. organic cigarettes).

According to the study, Cascade paper towels were the big — and only — winner, with claims of being chlorine-free, having recycled content, and having legitimate logos checking out as accurate.

greenwashing-sins.jpg

The main problem hampering adoption of green habits and products isn’t skepticism or lack of choice, but misinformation. Take the case of CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, for example. CFLs last up to 15 times longer, use between one fifth and one quarter of the power of an equivalent incandescent, and waste a lot less energy due to heat output. Therefore, they are better for the environment and the household budget. However, their mercury content makes them more hazardous when it comes to disposal than the old incandescents.

Yet, because of a story that broke last spring — and travelled like lightning around the world — about a homeowner in New England who spent $2,000 on clean-up of a broken CFL, enviro-skeptics still say that the CFL campaigns are a scam. What they failed to read were the follow-up stories, the admission of over-reaction by the Hydro company, and the facts about the proper disposal of CFLs. Yes, there is mercury, but new standards have meant the amount has already been reduced, and clean-up is focused on allowing air circulation, then disposing safely of broken glass. And nearly all stores selling CFLs have now said they will take care of disposal as well.

As with any innovation, there are questions that need to be asked, and a watchdog role for consumer groups. But skeptics and early adopters alike have a responsibility to base their decisions — not on fear or blind optimism — but on balanced information.

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Related Links:
Terrachoice: “The Six Sins of Greenwashing”
“Most products’ green claims exaggerated, study claims”
Greenwashing
Ecologo Program
CBC: “‘Green’ Ad claims must be better defined”
Energy Star answers
Slate: “The Case for CFLs”
“How much do flourescent bulbs really cost?”
The CFL clean-up: urban myth

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Comments»

1. lavenderbay - March 31, 2008

A very interesting article! I especially enjoyed the section on marketing sins. There’s a lot to be aware of, isn’t there?

2. eyegillian - March 31, 2008

Thanks for your comment, Lavenderbay — I was amazed to see that only one product was “sinless”! There’s so much to learn when it comes to environmental issues and even just the daily duty of being a smart consumer; I hope that the new marketing guidelines will help.

3. A Clear Future » When green products go bad - April 1, 2008

[…] the whole thing over here This entry was posted on Monday, March 31st, 2008 at 9:26 pm. […]

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