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Greenwashing: companies that try to be green at any price

Corporate responsibility regarding the environment and stakeholders (shareholders, providers, workers, consumers, society, etc) has become a mandate for businesses.

No one wants to risk that their brand become associated with: pollution, dishonest business practices with providers and workers; the use of materials that are toxic, dangerous or cause instability in their place of extraction; using large amounts of water, energy or other resources during production; excessive embodied energy, or the energy associated with the cost of producing and transporting a product to its final destination; lack of energy efficiency for a given product; or bad practices in the commercialization, collection and recycling of a product.

Communicating sustainability, without being sustainable

Few veteran firms had integrated aggressive policies for sustainability and social responsibility before those terms became popular in recent years.

With the trend of commercializing “green” products, some large businesses have suddenly became eager to associate their brand with nature and messages with a positive perception in today’s society like “green”, “responsible”, “natural”, “recyclable”, “sustainable”, “organic”, “bio” and similar words.

A world of certifications

To differentiate the chaff from the wheat in a world of supposedly “green” products is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, particularly taking into account that there is no universal certification that measures the responsibility of a business or the sustainability of a product. Government agencies, non-profits, ratings agencies, supranational organizations, industry groups…

There are so many certifications related the environment and social responsibility that the consumer needs to use, as her only guarantee, her own skills to educate herself before buying, investing or recommending a product or service.

There are many supposedly sustainable and responsible businesses and products; there are publicity campaigns with environmental messages promoted by energy providers that generate the majority of their energy through fossil fuels, or that contribute to to social and environmental instability worldwide.

The commercial mandate to be “sustainable”, “green”, “responsible”, “natural”, etcetera, has provoked many businesses to initiate profound structural changes. But, how do you differentiate these businesses that are trying to adapt their productive model to become more socially and environmentally sustainable from those that simply make superficial changes and promote them as authentic panaceas to save the world?

Greenwash and “green sheen”

Greenwashing” is defined as “the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly”.

Unfortunately, putting a “green sheen” on a product or service is not an isolated phenomenon in mature markets like those of the United States or Europe. According to TerraChoice, a Canadian environmental marking agency, 98% of products labeled “green” in North America are potentially misleading consumers.

The nonexistence of universal certification and labeling systems encourages, according to TerraChoice, the proliferation of nomenclature and labels that claim social or environmental responsibility.

Only in the technology sector, various regulations and industrial initiatives have been promoted to define “green computing”:

Government regulations: the Energy Star program in the United States, revised in 2006, establishes requirements regarding energy efficiency. The European Union has promoted the guidelines Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and to require the substitution of heavy metals and flame retardants in all products beginning in July 2006 (WEEE).

Industry initiatives (voluntary guidelines): in recent years several business associations have emerged with a common goal, to avoid obligatory regulation by promoting optional adoption of responsible practices. The Green Electronics Council, for example, promotes a tool to measure the sustainability of a computer or an electronic apparatus, EPEAT (Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool). There are other organizations pursuing similar objectives, such as Climate Savers Computing Initiative, Green Computing Impact Organization, The Green Grid and the International Professional Practice Partnership.

In this way, only in the electronics and computing market, buyers need to know Energy Star, RoHS and WEEE regulations, as well as recommendations from associations (like EPEAT, the must well-used certification for computing manufacturers), or those promoted by businesses with their own titles: for example, Canon has Generation Green and HP uses Eco Highlights.

There are also those reports promoted by other parties such as non-governmental organizations. This is the case with the Guide to Greener Electronics, a Greenpeace study performed periodically that measures the main computer, telephone, electronic and videogame manufacturers on their use of environmental parameters (the elimination of toxic substances, the fight against climate change and the introduction of recycling policies).

The task of recognizing companies that are truly taking the right steps to achieve high levels of sustainability is complicated, if not ephemeral.

Eco-labels everywhere

As green marketing grows, so do the number of “eco-labels” that compete for the environmental equivalent of a commonly accepted good practices approval, explains Gwendolyn Bounds in the Wall Street Journal.

According to Ecollabelling.org, there are more than 300 labels of this type, that award the supposed green seal to all types of products and services, from cosmetics to fish to coffee that respects birds.

The lumber industry, one that has historically crossed the line of acceptability via activities like the illegal importation of exotic woods or the destruction of ecosystems, has seen business and organizational associations establish certifications to guarantee the supposed sustainability andresponsibility of a product derived from wood: labels promoted by the Forest Stewardship Council, besides the Green Seal (United States) and EcoLogo (Canada). These three require at least verification independent of the supposed sustainable achievements that the businesses interested in obtaining the certification assure they have achieved.

However, other labels also used in the sector, like American Tree Farm System or the Tropical Forest Foundation, don’t require and independent audit tocertify the sustainable affirmations of a company regarding its own products.

The result of this lack of consensus and the absence of commonly accepted standards of sustainability doesn’t just affect computing and electronics and wood.

Who should promote a universal certification?

Bounds believes that, as a consequence, there is growing pressure on regional, state and supranational governments to lead multidisciplinary teams capable of creating standards that are recognizable, trustworthy and easy to interpret.

At the end of 2008, for example, the Democratic Senator of California Dianne Feinstein presented her proposal for creating an eco-label for the entire United States that would allow consumption products to compete regarding their environmental specs throughout their lifecycle.

“A growing number of consumers are interested in making informed choices about the environmental impacts of their purchases — and I believe the federal government can help,” explained Senator Feinstein to the Wall Street Journal. “So, I am working with consumer advocates, manufacturers, distributors, and existing labeling and certification project leaders … to create an accredited national eco-label program.”

Respecting the environment… on paper

Among the most common greenwashing tactics is that of businesses to try to pass cost reduction moves (and occasionally the firing of workers) as “sustainable” by associating them with the reduction of the use of resources.

The New York ecologist Jay Westerveld was the first to use the term greenwashing, to refer in the 1980s to the hotels that promoted the reuse of towels but lacked defined recycling strategies.

To use the term greenwashing now has more sense than every, claims Westerveld. It’s necessary to denounce businesses that use more money and time in publicizing their supposed sustainable achievements than in applying structural measures to improve the social and environmental conditions of their activities and products.

What a beautiful label…

In consumer products, companies often take on a label or a name to try to evoke the values of nature; for example, adding the image of a forest on a chemical product packaged in a plastic bottle, or insisting that water is mineral, natural and respectful of nature even though it comes in a plastic or glass bottle and travels thousands of miles.

Energy companies merit extensive studies around greenwashing, given that historically they are the largest investors in publicity and public relations campaigns related to their brand in which they appeal to respect for the environment and the legacy of future generations, as Joshua Karlina explains in A Brief History of Greenwash.

Energy generation, using carbon and natural gas for electricity generation, is one of the most polluting industries and one of the principal instigators of climate change caused by man.

It’s easy to change a name

The expression “linguistic detoxification” is attributed to the environmental activist Barry Commoner to describe situations in which, through legislative or government action, the definitions of toxicity for certain substances are modified, or the name of the substance changed, thereby reducing the number of things that are officially classified as toxic.

An example is the reclassification of radioactive residues as “beyond regulatory concern”, a change that allows this waste to be buried in conventional landfills, or the EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) renaming sewage as “biosolids” and allowing it to be used as fertilizer, despite the existence of large concentrations of dioxin, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and asbestos.

The sins of greenwashing

In December of 2007, TerraChoice published the first edition of their study called The Six Sins of Greenwashing, that soon acquired renown as one of the few studies of this phenomenon practicied by publicity and public relations specialists.

The report, updated in 2009 as The Seven Sins of Greenwashing, coincides with the first addition in that more than 99% of the consumer products analyzed (a total of 2,219) included some type of environmental misguidance.

In the United States and Canada, a total of 2,219 products making 4,996 green claims were recorded.

A total of 4,996 environmental claims were recorded (some products include more than one supposed environmental “benefit”), and only 25 products of the 2,219 studied were found to be “Sin-free”.

Scott McDougall, president of TerraChoice, talks about the 7 Sins (video), or the most common practices included in the labeling commercial communication of the main products of consumption with supposed environmental advantages:

  1. Sin of No Proof: a claim that can’t be substantiated by easily accessible information or a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet paper that claim percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.
  2. Sin of Vagueness: a supposed advantage defined so poorly or in such a broad way that it is likely to be misinterpreted by the consumer. “All-natural” is one of these definitions. Substances like arsenic, uranium or mercury occur in nature, although they are dangerous to life. “Totally natural” doesn’t equal “green”.
  3. Sin of Worshiping False Labels: a product that, through words or images, gives the impression of having third-party certification when no such endorsement exists.
  4. Sin of Irrelevance: a supposed environmental advantage that might be truthful but is unimportant. “CFC-free” lacks relevance, sinceCFCs are banned by law throughout the world.
  5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: a claim that might be true, but tries to distract the consumer from the real environmental impact of this type of product. A gasoline-powered SUV that is “respectful of the environment” or a brand of “organic cigarettes” would fit into this category.
  6. Sin of Fibbing: environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples are products that falsely claim to be Energy Star certified or registered.
  7. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off: to claim that a product is “green” based on set of limited attributes, without paying attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily better for the environment just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important issues like the use of chlorine for bleaching or the greenhouse gas emissions in its creation or commercialization may be just as important.

For their economic power and ability to reach public opinion, the large companies in sectors like energy and aeronautics have been accused of the greatest degrees of greenwashing.

Examples of greenwashing in the United States:

And in Europe:

  • Advertisements for Airbus with the silhouettes of passengers crowding beautiful landscapes, with the intention of projecting a green and clean image.
  • BAE Systems promoting lethal weapons that are respectful of the environment.
  • Exxon Mobil promoting with a big communications campaign their supposed reduction of greenhouse gasses, when in reality the total emissions generated by the company’s activities had increased.
  • The German Atomic Forum, in their campaign “unloved climate protectionists”, abusing the public’s preoccupation with climate change to promote nuclear energy.
  • The campaign by Shell suggesting through images that their petroleum refineries didn’t emit gases, but something as graphically agreeable as flowers.

How to initiate the road to social and environmental credibility

Jerry Stifelman, an American specialist in brand strategy design, believes that the development of a sustainable image is only credible when the veteran large corporations act in a transparent way, not exploiting their shareholders with costly campaigns that highlight small changes, but show honesty both toward their stakeholders and toward the greater society.

For Stifelman, it’s good to talk about the development of the brand of a startup, NGO or cleantech businesses which include at the center of their original vision the objective to be sustainable in the most broad sense. But what changes does he suggest for the veteran corporations that form a part of the “system”?

“If you’re Coca Cola (or Heinz or General Motors), your corporate values were forged in a time before climate change.” Stifelman believes that some of these giants have taken important and legitimate steps to make their activities and products more sustainable. But it is in communication these legitimate efforts to interest groups and the greater public that these veteran firms can capitalize on the changing times and help consumers make better decisions.

How can a large business spread the news about their corporate social responsibility without turning this news into green propaganda or greenwashing? Stifelman offers some generic advice that appeals to common sense and honesty. He calls them “Six Steps for Genuine Corporate Sustainability Communication”:

  1. Keep control of your communications.
  2. Humility and sustainability go hand-in-hand.
  3. Transparency enhances credibility.
  4. Discuss how you got to where you are.
  5. “Unwrap” the big words.
  6. Talk human and be relevant to your business.