Greenwashing survey calls for consumer caution in green purchases

Greenwashing survey calls for consumer caution in green purchases

Confused about how to buy environmentally responsible products? There’s good reason for your uncertainty.

A report by TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based marketing firm owned primarily by Underwriters Laboratory of Canada, says that more than 95 percent of all consumer products marketed as green overstate their greeness, a deceptive marketing strategy known as greenwashing

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

The “Sins of Greenwashing: Home and Family Edition” study reveals that greenwashing has declined slightly since 2009, with 4.5 percent of products now “sin-free,” compared to only 2 percent in 2009. The study also finds that marketers and product manufacturers are getting better, with greenwashing down among those who have been focused on environmentally preferable practices longer than others.

The proportion of “sin-free” products is five times greater in “mature” categories like building, construction and office products than in “immature” categories like toys and baby products.

“We found 73 percent more ‘green’ products on the market today than in 2009,” said Scott McDougall, president, TerraChoice. “This is great news and it shows that consumers are changing the world by demanding greener goods, and that marketers and manufacturers are taking note.”

The TerraChoice study, the third since 2007, examined 5,296 products in the United States and Canada that make an environmental claim. Between March and May 2010, TerraChoice visited 19 retail stores in Canada and 15 in the United States.

Product categories studied in the 2010 report include baby care products, toys, office products, building and construction products, cleaning products, housewares, health and beauty products, and consumer electronics.

In the meantime, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is seeking public comments to update its Green Guides. The Green Guides are guidance that the FTC gives to marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims.

Changes to the Green Guides include new guidance on marketers’ use of product certifications and seals of approval, “renewable energy” claims, “renewable materials” claims, and “carbon offset” claims. The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until Dec. 10, 2010, when it will decide which changes to make final.

The revised Guides caution marketers not to make blanket, general claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly” because the FTC’s consumer perception study confirms that such claims are likely to suggest that the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits. Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate.

The proposed Guides also caution marketers not to use unqualified certifications or seals of approval—those that do not specify the basis for the certification. The Guides more prominently state that unqualified product certifications and seals of approval likely constitute general environmental benefit claims, and they advise marketers that the qualifications they apply to certifications or seals should be clear, prominent and specific.

Next, the proposed revised Guides advise marketers how consumers are likely to understand certain environmental claims, including that a product is degradable, compostable, or “free of” a particular substance. For example, if a marketer claims that a product that is thrown in the trash is “degradable,” it should decompose in a “reasonably short period of time”—no more than one year.

The FTC is seeking comment on all aspects of its proposal. Examples include:

  • How should marketers qualify “made with renewable materials” claims, if at all, to avoid deception
  • Should the FTC provide guidance concerning how long consumers think it will take a liquid substance to completely degrade
  • How do consumers understand “carbon offset” and “carbon neutral” claims. Is there any evidence of consumer confusion concerning the use of these claims.

With the release of the updated FTC guidelines, the creators of the Greenwashing Index said the revisions were welcome but warned the government to expect meek compliance from advertisers.

“The FTC is trying to help advertisers and consumers navigate the wilds of green advertising, but marketers throw about environmental claims with abandon, and I don’t expect them to stop,” said EnviroMedia cofounder Kevin Tuerff, who created the Greenwashing Index to help consumers sort through true and false green ads. “Due to the global environmental challenges we face, the FTC must come down quickly and forcefully on advertisers who lie.”

(photo courtesy Lowes Inc.)

Topics: Sustainable Products, Trends / Statistics

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