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You asked the expert: Greenwashing, part 2

  • Story Highlights
  • Scot Case answers your questions on greenwashing
  • Is greenwashing unlawful?
  • Why are there so many certifying organizations?
  • What does it mean when a product says 100% Natural?
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You wanted to know more about greenwashing, and Scot Case, from environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, answered.

Greenwashing expert Scot Case of TerraChoice

Greenwashing expert Scot Case of TerraChoice

"I purchased some lightbulbs that stated they were green, then I saw a news article on the hazards of disposing of these lightbulbs. So how can they be green and hazardous? How can I be sure I am not causing more problems by being green?" Ed in Indy

The new compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) do contain a trace amount of mercury. While it would take 100 CFLs to equal the small amount of mercury found in a traditional, standard-sized, medical mercury thermometer, any mercury spill should be treated carefully. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides guidance on cleaning up after a broken CFL.

While consumers should be cautious of the mercury in CFLs, most mercury exposure results from burning coal to produce electricity. It is not from old thermometers, thermostats, or CFLs.

The reason CFLs are more environmentally preferable than the incandescent bulbs still in use is that CFLs require 75 percent less electricity to produce the same amount of light. Reducing electricity use reduces the mercury and global warming pollution created when coal is burned to produce electricity. Less mercury enters the environment as a result of using CFLs.

One of the important lessons for consumers is that the environmental impacts of a product or service -- the product's environmental footprint -- is not limited to the product itself. The environmental footprint extends to the raw materials used to make a product, the manufacturing process, the packaging and shipping, the use of the product, and its ultimate recycling or disposal. A greener product reduces the most significant adverse environmental impacts across the entire footprint.

There are always additional environmental improvements that can be made. As a result, there really is no such thing as a green product, only greener products. Improving the environmental performance of a product is a never-ending process.

In fact, even greener lighting solutions than CFLs are already in development. Light emitting diode (LED) technology is rapidly improving. LEDs are even more energy efficient that CFLs, and they do not contain any mercury. While they are already available, an LED lightbulb might cost $40 or more. Even the most committed green purchasers are hesitant to spend that kind of money, even though they will pay for themselves in energy savings. As LEDs continue to improve and the prices fall, consumers may transition from CFLs to LEDs. And even when LEDs are widely used, the search will continue for the next greener lighting technology.

"I am interested in understanding what makes a cleaning product 'green.' Why should I buy green cleaning products or any green products?" Cathy Allison

From a legal perspective, green is in the eye of the beholder. From a practical perspective and as a fairly lazy consumer interested in buying greener products, I look for products that have been independently certified as meeting a tough environmental standard like EcoLogo or Green Seal.

By my definition, a product is greener if it demonstrates compliance with a tough environmental standard. This makes it easier for me to select greener products without having to try and remember whether the hazards of a natural ingredient are less important than the artificial fragrance in another.

Both EcoLogo and Green Seal define "green" by following the ISO 14024 international standard used for establishing green standards. The ISO process requires the organizations to develop standards in an open, public, transparent process that includes a wide variety of perspectives. Standards are proposed, discussed, and debated by groups of interested parties from academia, government, environmental non-profits, consumer advocacy organizations, manufacturers, trade associations, retailers, individual consumers, and other interested parties. The final published standard becomes the accepted way of defining green for a particular class of products or services.

Using this approach, both programs have identified remarkably similar criteria for defining a green cleaning product. They include requirements for reduced toxicity, prohibitions against the most hazardous chemicals, a preference for concentrates to reduce the volume of water being shipped around the country, limits on volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, and difficult-to-meet scores on a series of aquatic toxicity, and skin and eye irritation tests.

The benefit to the consumer is that buying greener cleaning products and other greener products is a way of reducing the hazardous materials inside your home. It is a way of reducing the volume of cancer-causing chemicals, skin and eye irritants, and other hazards found in a typical household.

Just as importantly, it is a way of reducing the adverse environmental impacts associated with manufacturing the products. As a result, it is a way of protecting your home and the homes of others affected by the way products are made.

Buying greener products is also one way we can each contribute to a greener economy by rewarding the greener companies making the greener products with our hard-earned money. Every purchase is an investment in the future.

"Why are there so many certifying organizations? Aren't the companies with lots of money to spend the only ones able to get certified anyway?" Jim Morrison

Originally, there were only a handful of environmental-standard setting and certification programs. The Germans launched Blue Angel, the world's first environmental standard setting and certification program, in 1977. The first North American programs emerged in 1988 with the launch of EcoLogo, followed by Green Seal in 1989. The U.S. Government's Energy Star program followed in 1992. Unlike the other programs, Energy Star chose to focus only on energy efficiency rather than the broader set of issues covered by the other programs.

For years, these programs and a few others around the world were the only eco-label programs around. They grew slowly because of poor consumer interest and a lack of products available to meet the environmental standards.

As consumer interest began to grow, the programs also grew. EcoLogo now has 120 different product standards and more than 7,500 EcoLogo certified products. Green Seal has around 30 standards and more than 2,000 certified products. Energy Star also has thousands of energy-efficient products on its registry.

Recently, however, the number of environmental standards has expanded rapidly, along with consumer interest in greener products. There are now more than 300 different "green dot" programs identifying products with supposed environmental benefits. While some of the programs have merit, many are standards manufacturers have developed to promote their own products or standards that one earns by simply joining a trade association or paying a fee.

The most legitimate environmental standards, those complying with international environmental standard setting and certification requirements established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), have a very open, public, transparent standard development process involving a wide variety of stakeholders including government officials, consumers, purchasing professionals, manufacturers, academics, and advocates that mitigates any potential conflict of interest. The standards are publicly available free of charge on Web sites. Independent auditors review products and visit their manufacturers to ensure products actually meet the standards before being awarded a certification.

While some programs give away recognition for free, programs meeting the ISO 14024 requirements charge fees that begin around $1,200 to cover the costs of the independent audits and to generate some funding to promote the programs and develop new standards. While the $1,200 seems steep to some small companies, many see it as a cost of doing business that is significantly less expensive than advertising, labor, rent, and raw material costs. Studies of certification fees have concluded that the actual cost of certification adds fractions of a penny to the cost of a product.

Many government purchasers which routinely require environmental certifications have discovered that some of the manufacturers who complain most loudly about the costs of certification are unable to provide proof that their products are capable of meeting the standards. Even if a company decides not to have a product certified, they should be able to provide proof to the consumer that their products are capable of meeting the standards.

"What does it mean when a product says 100% Natural?" Andrew Johnston

It is anyone's guess what the phrase "100% Natural" means on a product. When we conducted the Six Sins of Greenwashing study, we found a manufacturer claiming its petroleum-based product was "100% Natural." When we questioned the manufacturer, the woman who answered the phone explained, "Well, the oil got in the ground naturally."

Her interpretation is probably not what most consumers interested in greener products would expect.

Consumers often mistakenly assume a phrase like "natural" means a product is safe, but it is important to remember that there are a lot of natural and "plant-based" extracts that are not particularly safe. Poison ivy is natural. Uranium and rattle-snake venom are natural. Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, was killed with a "100% Natural" poison extracted from hemlock.

The Natural Products Trade Association is attempting to define what it means to be a natural product. It released a preliminary standard in May 2008 and is now beginning to recognize products meeting the standard.

"Is 'greenwashing' unlawful? If so, does government enforce regulations regarding marketing claims, and how can consumers be empowered to choose 'Eco-Winners' rather than wait for government to act?" Greenercities

False advertising is clearly illegal. Unfortunately, many environmental claims fall into a gray territory where the rules are not yet clear. A manufacturer can apparently legally claim that a product is "greener" because it includes 0.001 percent recycled content even though most consumers would clearly feel misled.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission did issue its "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims" in 1992 and revise them in 1998. The FTC guides are supposed to clarify the types of permissible environmental claims. Unfortunately, there appears to be some combination of a lack of funding, a lack of willingness or a lack of legal authority to actually enforce the guidelines. I am hopeful that these issues will soon resolve themselves, because FTC is currently re-examining its guidelines.

Until there are adequate consumer protection laws and enforcement, consumers should familiarize themselves with both the FTC guidelines and the Six Sins of Greenwashing report. The report identifies questions that consumers can ask when reviewing environmental claims to determine whether the claims are meaningful. Consumers should also familiarize themselves with the legitimate environmental standards and certifications identified in the report, including EcoLogo, FSC, Energy Star, Green Seal, Chlorine Free Products Association, and others.

"Do companies selling 'green' products inflate profit margins on their products?" Blair Hill, Winnipeg, Canada

Companies selling traditional products and companies selling "greener" products are always trying to maximize profits. Smart consumers refuse to pay too much for any product whether it is green or not.

As a consumer, I have always been willing to pay for higher quality. I learned long ago that you get what you pay for. I also learned that sometimes -- such as with certain clothing lines -- you are paying more for the image a product helps you project than for the actual quality of the product.

When I shop, I look for high-quality, affordable products that have been certified by legitimate environmental standard setting and certification organizations like EcoLogo, FSC, Green Seal, the Chlorine Free Products Association, and others.

Once I know a product meets a tough, independent environmental standard, I then base my purchasing decision on typical considerations such as price, performance, and other indicators of quality. The company that earns my business might be generating higher profits than its competitor; I will never know, but I still win because I have made the right purchase for myself. And, if more companies start making more money by selling greener products, then the additional competition will help ensure that I am never paying more than needed to get a greener product from a greener company.

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