The concept of greenwashing is one that I have long refrained from discussing, preferring rather to encourage the developing green market and not to fuel fires of mistrust. Not because it’s not important, on the contrary. South Africans need to understand what constitutes a responsible consumer and how they can contribute towards a better world. But it is also a term that may have sown more trouble than good, playing right into the hands of sceptics and retarding the growth of this essential part of our economy.
Since the term was first coined in 1986 it seems that the average consumer, who is not particularly keen to change his consumer habits, often avoids making responsible choices by saying: “It’s probably greenwashing. How do I know it’s true?” Great excuse for maintaining the status quo. Hence this is known as one of the great stumbling blocks which deters sceptics from taking full responsibility for their footprint on this earth.
What is greenwashing and how will you recognise it?
It seems the term was coined by a journalist, Jay Westerveld, in 1986 after noticing that hotels put up notices asking guests to “save the environment” by using their towels more than once. That whilst they often did nothing in terms of their energy, water and waste practices or seriously reducing their impact on the earth.
A common Wikipaedia definition says “The term is generally used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices.”
So how is an ordinary consumer to know when green claims are legitimate and when not? Who and what can we trust? It’s a matter of green literacy – getting informed and looking out for the right things. Ensure you understand what is known as the ‘Seven sins of greenwashing.” Let’s try and unpack that in simple terms.
The 7 sins of greenwashing
- Sin of hidden trade-off refers to products claiming to be green when only a narrow band of attributes are green, while a host of other important environmental issues were not taken into account. (For example a wine farm claiming to be green because they conserve a portion of their land for fynbos. Yet what about their energy and water consumption, their waste policies, and their farming practices?)
- Sin of No Proof is committed when claims are made that are not verified by a reliable third party or easily substantiated by supporting information.
- (For example when facial or toilet tissue products claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content, without providing any evidence.)
- Sin of Vagueness is committed when the green claim is so badly defined that it is likely that the consumer will not understand it. (‘All-natural’ is an example, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s green. Many ‘natural’ products, like tobacco, for example are poisonous to the body or the environment.)
- Sin of Irrelevance is committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful, but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. (For example a wine farm claims to be green because their packaging is ‘recyclable.’ All wine bottles are recyclable – this proves nothing.
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. (Think organic cigarettes, or fuel efficient cars.)
- Sin of Fibbing is the least frequent sin, committed by making false environmental claims. (Like claiming to be certified or registered with a verifying body when they’re not.)
- Sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed when the impression is created that a product is verified by a third-party, but that symbol or name was simply falsely created to mislead the consumer. (Example would be to add a little tree to your branding to pretend that you are green.) So if you are unsure if a symbol is real or fake, check it out online. As they say in the legal system, ignorance is no excuse.
What are the risks of greenwashing?
The fact that greenwashing happens can be regarded as a good thing, as it could indicate that consumers are at least looking for green products – that certainly benefits the green industry and the planet as a whole.
However it is also a serious liability, as it means the consumer can be lead around by the (green) nose… and be doing harm when under the impression that they are doing good. This has eroded a great deal of trust in the green industry, lead to cynicism and has discouraged people from looking for green products.
It also leads to competition from illegitimate competitors, making the industry harder for legitimate products and businesses to survive in.
“The sustainability movement will lose the power of the market to accelerate progress towards sustainability.” [sinsofgreenwashing.org]
God is in the details
How do we negotiate our way around this problem? The answer is for green marketers not to make “broad, unqualified general environmental benefit claims like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ says the Guidelines from the US Green Guides summary. As these are difficult to prove, they should be specific and list exact environmental benefits which are “clear and prominent.” They should also avoid highlighting “small and unimportant” benefits.
More specifically they give guidelines for when to use words like recyclable, carbon offsets, certifications, compostable, degradable, free-of, non-toxic, ozone-friendly, and others which we hardly see here, like recycled content, refillable, made with renewable energy, made with renewable materials and source reduction.
My pet gripe is around the use of the word ‘recyclable,’ when you know for sure that most people don’t have access to recycling facilities, or simply don’t bother. Hence the Green Guides say, “Marketers should qualify recyclable claims when recycling facilities are not available to at least 60% of the consumers or communities where a product is sold. The lower the level of access to appropriate facilities, the more a marketer should emphasize the limited availability of recycling for the product.”
Another word abused in our country is “compostable.” If you don’t have an active composting system in your garden, then this product will not be composted, so this compostability therefore means nothing. In fact these products tend to get confused and mixed with recyclable materials and then weaken products made by the recycling industry. Until such time that we have large composting plants which take care of organic waste of households who don’t make their own compost in the garden, this claim is often deceptive.
About this the Green Guides state clearly that unless at least 60% of customers have access to composting facilities the use of compostable should be substantiated.
The truth about the Mobius Loop
There is a need for clear South African Green Guides, although I found a subsection of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that speaks to green matters. In general all claims need to be substantiated with details – no vague sweeping statements allowed. With regards to recyclability they state clearly “Advertisements may not by using the Mobius Loop symbol or in any other way claim that the product is recyclable, merely because it is technically capable of being recycled, unless facilities, which are reasonably accessible, exist for collection and recycling.” Wow, don’t we see this all the time?
Make sure you don’t misunderstand the use of the ‘Mobius Loop,’ which is the symbol of chasing arrows with a number inside. Most people think it means this product is recyclable, which is not true. It is simply a polimer identification number for materials recovery systems. It does NOT mean the product can be recycled. Even the above quote by the ASA indicates that they also don’t understand the Mobius Loop.
I was under this wrong impression for a very long time, even as waste trainer, and only recently learned the truth from the plastics industry. It is possible that this misconception was allowed to continue on purpose and taken advantage of, again for marketing purposes. I have also found this mistake on a number of sites venturing into the green field. Now is the time to dispel this myth once and for all.
Out with vague & irrelevant statements
The ASA also states clearly “Advertisements containing general statements such as “environmentally friendly” or “ozone friendly” or “green”, or graphics or symbols designed to convey a similar environmental message, will not be permitted unless qualified by a description of the benefit conferred, e.g. “ozone friendly – free from CFC’s”.
Finally, “Advertisements should not contain vague, incomplete or irrelevant statements about environmental matters, nor should it impair public confidence in the efforts made by the business community to improve its ecological standards.” [http://www.asasa.org.za/Default.aspx?mnu_id=111]
Clearly we have a lot of green housekeeping to do in this country. A good watchdog would be great too, yet I have found there’s an informal system which works. Scientists can raise their eyebrows but some of us, who have spent sufficient years in this field, have developed excellent instincts in this line. It is easy to ask a couple of questions and explore where a product is coming from – a genuine sense of wholistic and conscientious earth-keeping, or the green bandwagon for a quick buck? Luckily the latter never lasts long, as in general the market sifts them out in no time.
Ask, verify and share
The more responsible consumer is also often the more educated and intelligent consumer, so we will always ask questions and verify claims with research and inquiries. Key here is to also share your findings with the broader community.
Meantime all of us in the field should be moving towards official certification, which is no longer unavailable, nor unaffordable. As we serve the planet, we could also be serving our pocket. This will resolve the greenwashing issue once and for all.
By Elma Pollard, Green Times editor, eco trainer and consultant.