There are more products claiming to be green on the shelves of stores these days, however those ‘all-natural’ and ‘organic’ products are likely committing at least one of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing, by not telling the complete truth. Between 2007 and 2009, the in-store availability of so-called ‘green’ products has increased between 40% and 176%, with 98% of products surveyed still committing at least one Sin of Greenwashing, according to a report on the Seven Sins of Greenwashing released last week  by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing.

Greenwashing is defined as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Greenwashing is changing in creative ways. As a result, a new sin has been identified and added to the original 2007 Six Sins of Greenwashing. The ‘Sin of Worshiping False Labels’ means that some marketers are mimicking third-party environmental certifications on their products to entice consumers to buy. The full report and handy consumer tips can be found at: www.sinsofgreenwashing.org.

“The good news is that the growing availability of green products shows that consumers are demanding more environmentally responsible choices, and that marketers and manufacturers are listening”, said Scot Case, Vice President of TerraChoice.. “The bad news is that TerraChoice’s survey of 2,219 consumer products in the U.S. and Canada shows that 98% committed at least one Sin of Greenwashing and that some marketers are exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification by creating fake labels or false suggestions of third-party endorsement. Despite the number of legitimate eco-labels out there, consumers will still have to remain vigilant in their green purchasing decisions”.

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing, from most common to least common, are:

1. The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off occurs when one environmental issue is emphasized at the expense of potentially more serious concerns. In other words, when marketing hides a trade-off between environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest.

2. The Sin of No Proof happens when environmental assertions are not backed up by evidence or third-party certification. One common example is facial tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any supporting details.

3. The Sin of Vagueness occurs when a marketing claim is so lacking in specifics as to be meaningless. ‘All-natural’ is an example of this Sin. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. “All natural” isn’t necessarily ‘green’.

4. The (new) Sin of Worshiping False Labels is when marketers create a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green  certification process. One example of this Sin is a brand of aluminum  foil with certification-like images that show the name of the company’s own in-house environmental program for which there is no explanation.

5. The Sin of Irrelevance arises when an environmental issue unrelated to the product is emphasized. One example is the claim that a product is’CFC-free’, since CFCs are banned by law.

6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils occurs when an environmental claim makes consumers feel ‘green’ about a product category that is itself lacking in environmental benefits. Organic cigarettes are an example of this Sin.

7. The Sin of Fibbing is when environmental claims are outright false.  One common example is products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified.

“Eco-labeling is on the rise”, added Case. “Legitimate eco-labeling is nearly twice as common as it was in our 2007 survey, increasing from 13.7% to 23.4% on all ‘green’ products. The 2009 Seven Sins of Greenwashing report demonstrates that consumers do have greener choices in products but that they need to recognize the legitimate labels and ask questions of unfamiliar ones”.

About the Study

In November 2008 through January 2009, TerraChoice researchers were sent into category-leading ‘big box’ retailers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia with instructions to record every product making an environmental claim. For each, the researchers recorded product details, claim(s) details, any supporting information, and any explanatory detail or offers of additional information or support.

© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine, Monster.com, About.com Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine, HR.com, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.

  • fr33energy

    Terrachoice is a for-profit company that created a bias marketing campaign to push Ecologo (the logo they manage). My wife bought some Ecologo product a while back and noticed greenwashing on the label. What a farce (that makes them hypocrites)! This prompted me to check out Ecologo standards. I was surprised to learn that they are so old cannot really represent environmental leadership anymore?! Others only have a single criterion statement; where is the life-cycle approach they promised on their website) ?! Check out their website and download the standards. Shame on Terrachoice for pointing the finger at others, when they cannot deliver. Most eco labels are not worth paying extra money, because we have no idea of the environmental savings. All we have is meaningless marketing spin and bad marketing campaigns. It’s all a scam. Beware!