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The Dangers of Greenwashing

(January 2008) posted on Fri Jan 11, 2008

Offer only authentic 'green' claims.

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By Scot Case

green*wash (gren'wosh)-v. The act of misleading purchasers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

The growing demand for more environmentally responsible goods and services has led many manufacturers to find cost-effective ways of improving both their own environmental performance and that of their offerings. As a result, cleaner and safer products are on the market. Computers, copiers, and other office equipment are available without hazardous components. Cars are more efficient. Fewer trees are being cut to make paper. Less polluting energy sources are increasingly common.

Unfortunately, however, some manufacturers want to compete in a market that demands "green" products-but they haven’t made the investments necessary to provide them. So they resort to creative advertising instead.

The practice of inflating a company’s or a product’s environmental benefits is known as "greenwashing." The practice appears to be growing, and purchasers are learning that they must carefully examine all environmental claims to ensure that the benefits they seek are reflected in the products and services they buy.

How it began

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when professional purchasers and individual consumers first became interested in buying green products, the following kinds of claims began appearing on products: earth-friendly; eco-safe; 100% natural; made with non-toxic ingredients. But manufacturers were using the terms indiscriminately and without any attempt to clarify them. Purchasers were rightly confused about the meaning of the claims.

Following numerous consumer complaints, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces a wide variety of consumer-protection laws, began investigating what the FTC Chair at the time referred to as "advertising pollution." As part of its investigation, the FTC identified various deceptive advertising practices, including manufacturers making unsubstantiated claims and misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of their products.