You can't swing a dead hippie in a big-box store these days without hitting some sort of green boast on a label. Partially recycled. Energy efficient. Eco-friendly. Natural!
Off the top of your head, how many of these claims do you suppose are bogus or misleading in some way? A quarter? One-half? Try 99.9%.
That's the startling conclusion of research from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. Of the 1,018 green-advertised products it reviewed last fall, all but one committed one of the "six sins of greenwashing." Yikes.
That sounds like a call for tighter standards and more legal enforcement—perhaps some hefty fines, even a boycott or two. Force companies to be honest, right?
Sure. But there are deeper, less comfortable issues in the background of the greenwashing debate. While there's certainly a role for better oversight of green marketing, there are built-in limits to green honesty in a wealthy materialist culture.
More than half of the eco-labels on today's products, according to TerraChoice's research, hype some narrow eco-friendly quality (say, recycled content) while omitting mention of more significant environmental drawbacks, such as manufacturing intensity or travel costs. This is called the "sin of the hidden trade-off." Now, you might say it's not fair to call that greenwashing. After all, how many products today were not manufactured in overseas factories with lower labor and environmental standards? How many were not shipped long distances? Or wrapped in excess packaging?
We're more familiar with these trade-off traps elsewhere. Take health. What constitutes a healthy lifestyle is no great mystery: Exercise regularly and eat right. As food journalist Michael Pollan so pithily put it, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
That philosophy doesn't move a lot of processed food. A bag of potato chips may, in fact, be lower in sodium or higher in fiber than the competition. But let's face it: No bag of chips will ever be healthy. A person committed to living a healthy lifestyle generally won't eat salty, deep-fried food. In that sense, chips can't make health claims without committing the sin of the hidden trade-off. The same is true for the vast bulk of the food products in the supermarket. (I'm looking at you, Go-Gurt.)
The challenge of green living is similarly simple: Achieve the same quality of life using less stuff and less energy. A truly green consumer won't buy 8,000 square feet of bamboo flooring because the label said it had been hand-rubbed by Nepalese children for a fair wage; she'll dump the McMansion and try to live in a walkable area close to work. A green business will not deploy teams of researchers to figure out which 20%-post-recycled-content copy paper to use; it will offer free bus or subway vouchers, start a carpooling program, and let workers telecommute one day a week. Being efficient on the big stuff packs much more environmental punch than the benefits that come from choosing between competing light-green product A and the kelly-green product B.
The uncomfortable fact for many green marketers—and targets of that marketing—is that genuinely going green would mean giving up most of the products and services that clutter our consumer culture. It would mean simplifying, valuing time and people over stuff. How can most products avoid the sin of the hidden trade-off? With a simple label: "You don't really need this."
Greenwashing isn't merely a result of poor labeling standards and consumer protection. It's part and parcel of an economy built on trade in material and energy waste. Until we are collectively ready to really go green, greenwashing will be with us. Naturally.
Green Business David Roberts also covers green for Grist, an online environmental magazine.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.