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corporate dominance | environment

Green claims by "big box" stores lack support

TerraChoice.com just released a report and found at least one problem with nearly every one of the 1,753 green marketing claims made by "big box" retail stores in the U.S. and Canada. Only ONE claim stood up to basic probing by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing agency.
Greenbiz.com highlighted a startling new report on environmental marketing and found the corporations exagerating their "Greenness."

That's a sad state of affairs, one that stands to undermine, if not obliterate, the recently resurgent markets for environmental products and services. And it is all too reminiscent of the green markets of the early 1990s, when claims of biodegradable trash bags and recyclable polystyrene foam egg cartons, among many other things, were found to be misleading, if not outright fraudulent.

Is it any wonder that consumers are skeptical of green marketing claims?

We can do better -- lots better -- and TerraChoice deserves our thanks for unearthing its admittedly painful findings. If companies are unable to make basic claims about simple products, like cosmetics and cleaners, how can we expect them to be honest and forthcoming about more complex and impactful purchases, like computer and cars?

Greenbiz.com new:

READING, Penn., Nov. 19, 2007 -- The overwhelming majority of environmental marketing claims in North America are inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated, according to a comprehensive survey released today.

According to a report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, "greenwashing is pervasive," with the risk that "Well-intentioned consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise."

In the spring of 2007, TerraChoice sent research teams into six category-leading "big box" retail stores with instructions to "record every product-based environmental claim they observed." In all, the teams examined 1,018 consumer products bearing 1,753 environmental claims. Products ranged from cleaning and personal care products to televisions and printers.

Of the products examined, "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences," according to the report.

TerraChoice identified six types of labeling problems. They include claims that had no proof to back up their assertions, claims that are so vague that their meaning is likely to be misunderstood by consumers, claims that are irrelevant to their respective products, claims that are technically true but distract consumers from a product's real problems, and claims that misuse or misrepresent certification by an independent authority.

"We are now entering a phase where the consumers have a lot more access to information than they have ever had in the past," says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice. "I think the marketing departments haven't quite realized what strong demand there is for that kind of transparency. So I would hope that this six sins of greenwashing will wake people up -- that people are expecting a higher level of scrutiny than they used to need for these kinds of claims."

The report offers suggestions for both marketers to avoid each of the six "sins" in the future, as well as to consumers to help them ask tough questions when they see marketing claims.

Misleading consumers on environmental marketing claims can have significant impacts, says Case. "I think the real danger is if people are successful with their greenwashing efforts, then the truly green, the truly innovative companies -- the ones that have really figured out how to reduce their carbon footprint, how to produce a nontoxic product, how to make products out of renewable materials that can be reused and are really -- the truly innovative products are going to lose out."

Read the full report at www.TerraChoice.com

Blog posting on this study 20.Nov.2007 18:51

From a friend

Of course greenwashing is a problem. But the study cited doesn't even pass the laugh test.

"Of 1,018 products , all but one made claims that are demonstratingly false or that risk misleading intended audiences."

OK - So I go to my refrig and pull out the very first product I see.

Stonyfield Farm Organic Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt

It makes the following environmental claims:

USDA Organic (Certified by QAI)
"We give 10% of our profits to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. "
That's it. Given that this study faults over 99.9% of products as misleading, it is at least 99% certain they would disqualify this on the grounds that the package doesn't offer proof that the efforts supported actually protect and restore the earth.

Next product:
Santa Cruz Organic Lemon Juice

USDA Organic
"Our third-party cerfitication process is your guarantee that our products are grown and processed under the National Organic Standards. Our independent third-party certification agency is Quality Assurance International. Look for this seal to guarantee that you are getting quality organic products."
"100% of the electricity used to make this product is offset with renewable energy certificates.'
Again - Since they reject 99.9% of all products, I'm sure this one isn't the winner. Perhaps it is misleading to say that 100% of the electricity used to make the product is offset, because it doesn't include the electricity used to refrigerate the product in the store? Or that it doesn't include the fuel used in transport? Ah - but it clearly says "electricity used to make this product."


Is this study's conclusion that 99.9% of environmental claims are unsubstantiated really significant, or is their bar just so high as to be unreachable without including a pamphlet of small print with every product sold?

Whatever their intention, the articles being written about this study are likely to mislead consumers into thinking that shopping for environmental benefits is futile. Let's call it "Brownwashing."