Greenwashing and green marketing

Government Procurement News has a thorough article from Scot Case about environmental claims and greenwashing. They cite a forthcoming study that identifies the following six greenwashing “sins”, which I reproduce, as they are priceless:

Sin of Fibbing
—While rare, some manufacturers do mislead customers about the actual environmental performance of their products. Some manufacturers have claimed that their products meet the environmental standards developed by EcoLogo or Green Seal when it is clear they do not. The EcoLogo program even has a fraud advisory section on its web site warning purchasers about misuses of the EcoLogo certification mark.

Sin of Unsubstantiated Claims
—Also known as the sin of “just trust us,” some manufacturers are unable to provide proof of their environmental claims. Others use words like “green” or “eco” in their corporate or product names and hope no one asks for details. All environmental claims should be verified by an independent certifying body or auditor, or the manufacturer should be willing and able to provide the necessary documentation to prove a claim when it is requested. Purchasers should be able to easily verify the recycled content of a product or to learn whether it contains any ingredients of concern.

Sin of Irrelevance
—Some manufacturers make factually correct environmental assessments that are no longer relevant for the particular product category. As an example, many aerosol products continue to make “CFC-free” claims even though CFCs have been banned in these products since 1978. These accurate but irrelevant environmental claims can confuse even savvy purchasing professionals.

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
—Many products make bold claims about a single environmental attribute, which can lead purchasers to mistakenly believe that it is the only environmental attribute of concern for a particular product category. A cleaning product manufacturer, for example, is currently displaying an environmental certification mark documenting that its cleaning products are manufactured in a facility powered by renewable energy, which is clearly a beneficial environmental feature. The product makes no claims, however, about the potential human health or environmental hazards of the product itself. Purchasers could easily be misled by the certification mark to believe that the product is safer or uses safer ingredients than its competitors when that may not be true. Review products with single attribute claims carefully.

Sin of Vagueness —Broad, poorly defined environmental claims continue to challenge purchasers seeking high-quality environmentally preferable products. A vague claim such as “100 percent natural,” for example, can be very misleading because some naturally occurring substances such as arsenic and dioxin can be very harmful to human health. Legitimate environmental claims are not vague.

Sin of Relativism —A product can be the most environmentally preferable product in its class, but still be an inappropriate choice. The most fuel-efficient sport utility vehicle (SUV), for example, is still less preferable if a mid-sized passenger car will suffice.

Of course, there are many reliable and legitimate environmental standards and certification organizations, so that you may be sure you are buying the highest quality “green” goods.


But the fact that a product is “green” is not enough on its own to attract regular consumers. Greenness may be the key factor in a purchase for some hardcore environmentalists, as being cool does it for another segment of the population (See article at Cleantech Blog). For most people, though, the green factor comes behind quality and satisfaction issues.

According to Jacquelyn Ottman (founder of J Ottman, a green marketing consultancy), the manufacturer should treat green benefits as added value to a good product and he will be left with something that is appealing to the customer as well as environmentally friendly.

Ottman highlights Energy Star, a labelling initiative sponsored by the EPA and the Department of Energy. Energy Star products are not asking consumers to trade ecological benefits for product quality. Their distinctive label, easy to recognise, provides information about 44 different benefits, mainly economic savings in energy and water use, on top of the product’s purely green credentials.

The final tip from Ottman to companies is that green marketing tactics must include the input of environmental critics – often in the form of NGOs – who have the power to either legitimise or discount a company’s green message, giving or taking away credit where it’s due.

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One Comment on “Greenwashing and green marketing”

  1. Scot Case Says:

    The full report, “The Six Sins of Greenwashing” is now available on the TerraChoice website —

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