‘Greenwashing’: Consumers beware

GREEN CHOICE: But sometimes the green is only on the outside of the box.

GREEN CHOICE: But sometimes the green is only on the outside of the box.

In the build-up to Fairfax Media and PwC’s Sustainable60 awards this month, Jenny Keown considers how not to get greenwashed by companies’ claims about their «sustainable» products.

You nip into the supermarket on your way home from work to pick up a few things for dinner. The place is heaving with people, and you’re in a hurry.

You head to the pasta section and reach for your tried-and-true brand of spaghetti but hang on, there’s a similar brand with green smiley-face stickers all over it that says Go Green. Suddenly your internal dialogue goes into overdrive – «it’s more expensive but your budget is tight, you believe in supporting sustainable products but what does that Go Green sticker actually mean?»

We’ve all been there, right? Trapped in indecision over a product that says its environmentally friendly, but there is no way of knowing on the spot.

The sad news is more often than not, the claim isn’t genuine. It’s called greenwashing and industry commentators warn it will grow if action isn’t taken by consumers, businesses, and regulators.

Companies want to claim their products are green and ethical in response to the growing number of consumers who care about sustainability. But there’s a catch. Either unwittingly or knowingly many are making false claims about how green their products are, ranging from exaggeration to downright lies.

Arguably, the greatest risk is that consumers who don’t know where to access reliable information about which products are genuinely green, become cynical and turn away from environmentally friendly products entirely. That’s something that has started to happen in the US and Europe.

The good news is that a problem always presents opportunity. New Zealand has a huge opportunity to get it right, and if not stop greenwashing in its tracks, get rid of most of it, says Kath Dewar, a lecturer in green marketing at Auckland University and founder of GoodSense.

In a recent example of activism on this issue, the Green Party, WWF and Greenpeace called on all toilet paper manufacturers to reveal what was in their product. An eight-month investigation resulted in last month’s revelation that the CottonSoft brand used timber sourced from rainforests in Indonesia.

Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty sums it up: «CottonSoft – it sounds so nice, doesn’t it?» As well as a retail-wide boycott of the product, she is calling on Environment Minister Nick Smith to require firms to reveal what is in their products and how they’ve made them.

Dewar recounts a recent trip to her local West Auckland supermarket where she went to buy new entrant All Good Bananas that has a Fair Trade certification. However, rival Dole Bananas had put an Ethical Choice sticker on its fruit (see panel). Most shoppers would not have been able to judge which label had more substance.

A lot of consumers want to buy green products, Dewar says, but most don’t know how to access reliable information about what products are what they claim to be.

A Colmar-Brunton poll released last week revealed 60 per cent of consumers factor in at least one green aspect to their shopping purchases, including whether it was earth-friendly or locally grown. However, value for money still won out ultimately, with 94 per cent of consumers saying price affected their choice of supermarket brand.

But the poll also revealed many consumers remain in the dark about what sustainability really means, with most feeling they’re not well informed about the subject.

Dewar believes consumers need to be educated about their rights and know that they can and should make complaints about companies they think are being deceptive.

Anyone can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and companies have to substantiate their claims. The self-regulating industry body is in the early stages of developing and modernising its 1994 guidelines about environmental claims.

And the Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, can prosecute companies it believes have a false or misleading claim. The commission is investigating six companies about their green marketing and have two cases before the courts.

Dewar thinks we have fairly strict regulations that set the bar high because companies simply can’t claim to be eco or environmentally friendly, but others disagree.

Chapman Tripp partner Lindsey Johns doesn’t believe the regulations are clear enough. Under the Fair Trading Act, there was no obligation on a business to have evidence to substantiate their claims.

«The Commerce Commission’s prosecution has the burden of proving whether the claim is wrong. It’s an expensive way of ensuring the market place doesn’t mislead consumers.»

She questions how companies’ green claims could be monitored, given the commission’s finite resources.

Malcolm Rand runs the EcoStore, a company that has produced green cleaning products for 18 years. He doesn’t think the regulations have changed much, and that it’s companies like his that help keep competitors honest. EcoStore has a policy of transparency and authenticity so consumers can do their own research, he says.

For example, under current regulations companies don’t have to test whether their clothes washing liquid is safe for humans, he says.

He urges consumers to go to online forums, check internationally respected toxicity websites such as the Environmental Working Group, and to watch out for fluffy language, such as biodegradable.

«Everything is biodegradable. Nuclear waste is biodegradable, it just takes half a million years.»

So where do consumers access reliable information about products?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. There isn’t a go-to website with a central database that clearly filters out the good guys from the bad guys, or shows the certificates that can be trusted.

The Sustainable Business Network is developing a member database that the public will be able to access – but it’s not as simple as you might think, says founder and CEO Rachel Brown.

Just because a company hasn’t got certification doesn’t mean its claims aren’t genuine.

It comes down to brand integrity and telling an honest story, she says.

Dewar says we need to celebrate the good stuff happening in this space, such as major global company Unilever announcing targets of taking phosphates out of washing liquids.

But from the business perspective, change is difficult.


Auckland University green marketing lecturer Kath Dewar is pretty good at avoiding greenwash.

After all, she teaches companies how to market their sustainability features within the right legal and ethical guidelines.

On a recent trip to her supermarket, she came across Ethical Choice stickers on Dole bananas which were placed next to new entrant All Good bananas which has a Fair Trade certification.

Dewar alleges the Ethical Choice sticker is a prime example of greenwash, because it uses vague language and, on closer inspection, has dubious claims.

But New Zealand market representative for Dole Asia, Steve Barton, says Dole has always had a corporate responsibility programme and just thought it was time for the world to know about it.

It has built community buildings, schools and a hospital in the Philippines to support the workers on its plantations. The company also pays an hourly rate to workers above the Philippine Government’s minimum wage.

«You can’t throw money at these people because they’ll just spend it on silly things, you need to provide the infrastructure around them,» says Barton.

All Good Bananas co-founder Chris Morrison, who also founded Phoenix Organic Juice, says the Fair Trade certification is independently run by non-government organisations, and each company had to be independently verified.

Fair Trade standards for hired labour situations ensure that employees receive minimum wages and bargain collectively. Its plantations must ensure that there was no forced or child labour and that health and safety requirements were met.

He urges consumers with concerns to seek advice from Oxfam and other non-government organisations to find out more about Fair Trade standards.


Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning, eg eco-friendly.

Green products v dirty company: Such as efficient lightbulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers.

Suggestive pictures: Green images that indicate a green impact, eg flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.

Irrelevant claims: Emphasising one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.

Best in class: Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.

Just not credible: «Eco friendly» cigarettes anyone?

Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand.

Imaginary friends: A «label» that looks like third-party endorsement – except it is made up.

No proof: It could be right, but where is the evidence? Outright lying: Totally fabricated claims or data. Source: Futerra Sustainability Communications

Source / Fuente: http://www.stuff.co.nz

Author / Autor: BusinessDay.co.nz

Date / Fecha: 07/11/11

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