The Seven Deadly Sins of Greenwashing: Part I


You open the fridge. Empty. It’s clearly time to hit up the local grocery store. You make plans to stop after work so that you have something to eat for supper.

5:00 PM. You get in your car, drive to the store. You’re standing in the aisle, considering your options: black beans. Brand A is cheapest, but Brand B says “Organic” on the label. You consider yourself an environmentally-conscious person, so you choose the Brand B black beans.

Do You Know what You’re Buying?

The term greenwashing was coined by an environmentalist named Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of encouraging re-use of towels and sheets. You know, the placards that read “If you’d like new towels, please leave your used towels on the floor” ? Jay Westervelt felt that these placards were a load of crap, and he published his essay about the fact that while hotels were painting themselves as “eco-friendly”, their ulterior motive was really just to save money on the laundry.

Greenwashing is essentially a marketing strategy – and a growing one. We’ve all seen it: it’s when a company engages in “green talk” – the language they use to inform consumers of their environment-conscious initiative – but doesn’t walk the “green walk”, or follow through on their claims.

Seven Deadly Sins

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, an advertising consultancy that has spearheaded research on greenwashing in US and Canadian markets, has categorized marketing claims into the following “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” (adapted from The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: Environmental Claims in Consumer Markets):

  1. Sin of the hidden trade-off: committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues (for example, paper produced from a sustainably harvested forest may still yield significant energy and pollution costs).
  2. Sin of no proof: committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification (example: paper products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence).
  3. Sin of vagueness: committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer (“all-natural” is a common one).
  4. Sin of irrelevance: committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful, but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products (for example, “CFC-free” is meaningless given that chlorofluorocarbons are already banned by law).
  5. Sin of less of two evils: committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater health or environmental impacts of the category as a whole (example: organic cigarettes).
  6. Sin of fibbing: committed by making environmental claims that are simply false (as in products falsely claiming to be Energy Star Certified).
  7. Sin of false labels: committed by exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification with fake labels or claims of third-party endorsement (by using certification-like images with green jargon such as “ego-preferred”).

So – do you really know what you’re buying? To find out, it could take some research. In my next post I’ll explore two products found in my own kitchen that carry green labels. Stay tuned!


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