Are We Being Greenwashed?

Greenwashing is like whitewashing. Whitewashing means covering up any black marks on something's record to make it seem better than it really is. By the same token, greenwashing means making it appear to be more environmentally friendly than it is.

A new study reports that companies do a lot of greenwashing. According to environmental marketing firm Terrachoice, 95% of supposedly green products make misleading or false claims about their environmental impact. Terrachoice’s study should probably be taken with a grain of salt, since one of its main businesses is certifying that products are environmentally friendly. But while Terrachoice may have an incentive to exaggerate the extent of the problem, there’s little question that companies do try to cash in on consumers’ preference for environmentally friendly goods by making vague, unverifiable, and even false claims for their products.

In a survey of more than 5,000 products, Terrachoice found that a slightly smaller percentage of products made dubious claims about how environmental impact than did in 2009. But it still found that more 95% of the products it surveyed made vague, unverifiable, irrelevant, misleading or false claims making their products seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Many companies simply asserted without evidence that their products are in some unspecified way “all-natural” or “eco-friendly.” Others slapped official-looking—but meaningless—labels that falsely implied their claims had been verified by some authoritative third-party. And others simply lied about being in compliance with the government’s Energy Star program.

Most disturbingly, Terrachoice says that all of the toys and more than 99% of the baby products it looked at were guilty of some form of greenwashing. In particular, it found a huge increase this year in the number of toys and baby products claiming without evidence to be free of BPA—a widely-used chemical that independent studies have linked to breast cancer, fertility problems, obesity, as well as to developmental problems in infants.

The fact is that companies are not required to verify most of what they say about their products. They can say almost anything with impunity. And if it will sell products they will say almost anything. So if you care about how things are made and what they’re made of, you can’t simply believe everything you read.

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