/ 20 February 2008

The truth about greenwashing

It might have taken us a while, but consumers are finally waking up to the importance of selecting products and services that are environmentally friendly and have less impact on the Earth. Of course, South Africa is still some way behind its developed counterparts in making it easy to be “green” or environmentally aware, but there are increasing numbers of people who will choose a product or even pay that little extra because it claims to be environmentally friendly.

And, in keeping with the basic law of economics — where demand leads, supply will follow — suppliers of goods and services worldwide are developing “greener” products or adapting operations to appear more environmentally friendly. But is the commitment of suppliers to environmental awareness equal to their desire to sell their product or service? The answer, sadly, is usually “no” and in many cases, unknown to the average consumer, they are simply practicing what has become known as “greenwashing”.

Greenwashing, or the art of misleading consumers about the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service, has taken quite a predominant place in the ever-growing list of dubious marketing practices.

Terms such as “organic”, “environmentally friendly” and “natural” have become the marketing mantras of companies selling anything from batteries to buildings. Recently, a well-known toiletry brand was found to be misleading consumers with the term “organic” when its product contained as many as 10 highly dubious and harmful chemicals. The service industry is not too far behind manufacturing when it comes to greenwashing.

Recently the hospitality and tourism sectors have recognised the benefits associated with this marketing practice as more and more patently “eco-unfriendly” products enter the market. The environmentally aware traveller represents the fastest-growing travel niche market worldwide and international tourists, in particular, often choose to eat or stay at an environmentally responsible establishment because it promotes good environmental business practice. The industry is slowly catching on to this lucrative market and today greenwashing is alive and well in tourism.

So, to what extent is this practice taking place? There are certainly those organisations that have made a genuine commitment to sound environmental practice and they tend to walk the talk when it comes to reducing their environmental impacts. But greenwashing is more common than we think. A recent survey conducted in the United States randomly selected 1 018 consumer products that claimed some level of environmental friendliness in their marketing or packaging, but 99% of these products were guilty of greenwashing.

The researching organisation, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, identified six areas in which products or services are falling short of being as green as they claim. This is what they called the “six sins of greenwashing”:

  • Sin one is the hidden trade-off; for example, energy-saving lamps that contain hazardous materials — what’s the point? Make sure when you save with one hand that you aren’t destroying with the other. In South Africa, consumers are being urged to switch from incandescent lamps to the new low-energy equivalents (CFLs), but no effort has been made to educate or advise them of the mercury content or of the long-term danger these lamps pose to communities when dumped. Not one of the manufacturers, suppliers or retailers has made any effort to create a safe disposal facility for these lamps and government seems oblivious to the threat while the average consumer remains unaware to the legacy we are creating.
  • Sin two is a big one in South Africa — the sin of no proof. In the absence of rigorous controls and, in many cases national environmental standards, many South African businesses and products are claiming environmental management compliance that can’t be proved. If you pay for something you are being told is “green”, demand proof or, at the very least, question the claims.
  • Sin three is the advertiser’s favourite — the sin of vagueness. Vague claims such as using the terms “organic”, “environmentally friendly” and even “eco-safe” tend to give the impression that the product is safe and Earth-friendly when in fact it is not. These vague claims leave room for interpretation or, more importantly, misinterpretation and advertisers and manufacturers take full advantage of this. Consumers should demand the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Anything less is greenwashing and, quite frankly, tantamount to fraud.
  • Sin four is the sin of irrelevance. No one should brag about having a product free of CFCs when these chemicals were banned 20 years ago. And this is probably the category into which we should place businesses that claim to be environmentally friendly because they recycle paper. So what? Everyone should be doing that. It’s like a matric certificate — the bare minimum. When the business is separating waste into compost, plastic, glass, aluminium and paper, then we can talk, maybe.
  • Sin five is the sin of fibbing (for those who don’t deal in euphemisms, that means lying) and it poses one of the largest challenges for any consumer. In the tourism sector many products claim to be environmentally responsible by virtue of the type of business they operate while they operate in exactly the opposite manner. How many of us will question the environmental performance of a game lodge? Probably not many, but the fact is that many operate with abysmal environmental standards behind the scenes.
  • Sin six is claiming to be the lesser of two evils such as organic cigarettes or environmentally friendly pesticides. Since when do we reward someone for destroying the Earth gently?

So why aren’t we talking about greenwashing more? The South African adverting industry should be policing its members, business chambers should set higher standards and, of course, government needs to get its ducks in a row as far as standards and certifications are concerned. Even our mainstream media are at a bit of a loss about how to report on environmental issues and they fall into many of the traps that marketers leave when reporting performance and results.

I hear at least one voice saying: “We have bigger fish to fry.” How can a nation with our crime and poverty be worrying about whether businesses are stretching the truth about tree hugging? Bluntly put, if we lose more wetlands or if the coastline begins to be overtaken by the ocean through global warming as predicted, the resulting unemployment and loss of property will make the current economic climate look downright peachy by comparison. Add to that the growing health hazards of carbon emissions, toxic gases caused by landfill sites and dirty water through unmanaged discharges and you have a humanitarian disaster brewing. This is not just about trees.

We shouldn’t tolerate politicians lying about spending or receiving, products claiming performance they don’t deliver or paying for two items and only getting one. So why aren’t we demanding the truth about the environmental practices of the companies with which we spend our money? Our banks, corporations, industry, government and service providers must be held accountable for their environmental impacts and the best way to do this is by withholding support and changing our buying patterns. Becoming a more informed consumer and understanding that we have the constitutional right to question the claims and marketing jargon used go a long way towards achieving this necessary change.

There are truly responsible companies forging the way in our marketplace, but unfortunately there is still no national accreditation system. And, unless consumers start asking the question: “Is this product or service really environmentally friendly — and how do I know?”, greenwashing will continue to undermine some truly noble efforts to change the way we live.

Greg McManus is mana-ging director of the heritage environmental programme