98% of ‘green’ products are a con; caveat emptor

Could this be the very height of cynicism, the dark heart of the packaged goods industry: More than 98% of supposedly “natural” products in the US are making potentially false or misleading claims, according to TerraChoice, an environmental consulting firm following a survey of nearly 4,000 consumer products which recorded unverifiable information and blatant lies.

Once again, the poor old consumers need to go on the defensive; British consumer spend on environmentally green goods increased five-fold from £1.4bn in 1999 to £7bn in 2009 – and unsurprisingly there has also been a corresponding rise in confusing advertising labels as marketers rush to cash in. Green, natural, eco-friendly, recyclable, fragrance free….can you believe what you read? Around the world, government agencies regulating the labeling and advertising of goods are struggling with what the term “natural” actually means.  This has led to there being very little guidance on the use of “natural” on labels and in advertising.

TerraChoice claims the 7 most common misleading and deceptive tactics used by manufacturers and marketers are::

  1. The Hidden Trade-off suggests that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest.
  2. No Proof when environmental assertions are not backed up by evidence or third-party certification. For example facial tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any supporting details.
  3. Vagueness when a marketing claim is so lacking in specifics it becomes 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. False Labels when there is a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green certification process – often the company’s own in-house environmental program for which there is no explanation.
  5. Irrelevance for instance the claim that a product is “CFC-free,”  since CFCs are banned by law.
  6. Lesser of Two Evils ie ‘green’ claims for a product category that is itself lacking in environmental benefits. Organic cigarettes are an example of this phenomenon.
  7. Lying is when environmental claims are outright false. One common example is products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified.
  8. Selective greening. A company may market a valid green product whilst also being involved in a range of other environmentally damaging products or activities…note really deceptive as far as the validly green product goes, but does this company have the right to green claims?

The poor old consumer looking to find the 2% of products that are actually natural has some work to do. And here is how you can start:

  • Don’t trust the label as fact.  Understand that just cause it says natural, does not mean it really is.
  • Shop with a discerning eye.  If it is too good to be true it most likely is, and the claim is just advertising hype.
  • Read the ingredients carefully.  Fake natural products often will have a long list of ingredients full of chemicals that may be harmful.
  • Compare similar products.  Look at the ingredients of one product that claims to be natural and one that does not, and see if there are any differences.
  • When in doubt check with a health professional.

In Australia, the law that covers greenwashing is the Trade Practices Act 1974 – that’s right, 1974!!! Hardly cutting edge legislation keeping up with consumer and marketing patterns. However, a few big names have been prosecuted under it. For example, in September of 2008 the Federal Court of Australia ruled that General Motors had broken this law with an advertisement that proclaimed the carbon neutrality of Saab cars. On closer inspection, it was clear that the 17 native trees the company pledged to plant for each car sold would offset only one year’s worth of carbon emissions, not the entire emissions over the lifetime of the vehicle, as the ads implied.

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