November 2011

The Grass Isnít Always Greener, or Green at All

For most people, purchasing eco-friendly products is about preserving the environment. For many companies, however, it’s all about preserving the bottom line. That’s why a new tactic called “greenwashing” is taking over. Greenwashing is the practice of companies purposefully misleading consumers into thinking products are more eco-friendly than they really are. While it’s not something to keep you up at night, it is certainly something to be aware of.
 
One of the most common tricks companies use involves the triangular recycling symbol. This can symbolize that the product itself is recycled, but it can also refer to the packaging, and even then, it still might not be what it appears. It could mean that the packaging is made from post-consumer, recycled material, but it may also mean that the packaging is simply recyclable in the future. Confusing, right? That’s why the best anti-greenwashing tactic is to disregard the recycling symbol entirely when evaluating the merits of a particular product. At this point, it is too open to interpretation misuse.
 
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing did a study in late 2010 that showed 95 percent of eco-friendly products actually overstate or mislead as to their ecological credentials, or lack thereof. By offering vague statements without documentation or explanation, companies can make the claim that they are green without having to back it up. Interestingly, the worst offenders target new parents: 99.2 percent of “eco-friendly” baby products were deemed “ungreen,” and an astonishing 100 percent of toys geared toward the eco-marketplace were found not to live up to their claims.
 
However, not all is lost. The same study also found that of the 5,296 products researched, approximately 4.5 percent were “legitimately green.” This number may seem low until you take into consideration numbers from the previous year. In 2009, a mere two percent of supposed “eco-friendly” items were as advertised – meaning retailer honesty is up an astonishing 225 percent!
There are also many specific products that have eco-friendly reputations, but aren’t quite as good for the environment as consumers have been led to believe. Take e-readers, for example. While some dream of a paperless future, e-readers may not be the greenest way to get there. Ted Genoways, Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, states, “It takes almost exactly 50 times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.”
Another item often heralded by green aficionados, but does not live up to expectations, is the CFL light bulb. While they do, in fact, use less electricity and last long, they also contain mercury and will release mercury vapor if broken. So, while neither of these items are a total waste, they are not entirely as advertised.
 
For more tips on how to be a better green consumer, visit www.greenerchoices.org. This website, run by the publishers of Consumer Reports magazine, will give you a comprehensive overview of green marketing terms and help you avoid common traps set by retailers.