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EcoChamber #11: That 'green' product? Probably not so green.

emily hunter

98% of so-called "green" products really aren't. Creative Commons photo by fotdmike.

98% of so-called "green" products really aren't. Creative Commons photo by fotdmike.

It seems like everything has “gone green” these days. From retailers to celebrities, airlines to hotels, banks to even runway fashion, the environment is sexy in the marketplace for the first time. But is all the publicity really helping Mother Nature? When consumers are being “greeenwashed” in their attempt to fit into a petite size footprint, there is a serious problem-the status quo.

Greenwashing, like whitewashing, is masks inconvenient truths about the sustainability of products and services. By appearing to be environmentally sensitive, companies are earning billions in “green” revenue. Meanwhile, consumers are misled in their attempts to live green, unknowingly contributing further to planetary destruction.

“It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green,’ through advertising and marketing, than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact,” says the Greenwashing Index, a web site that rates the authenticity of companies’ and products’ eco-friendliness.

And the sad reality is most green products out there are bogus. Exactly 98% of products that claim green labels in the market place are greenwashed, says a report by the TerraChoice Environmental Marketing in April. The company says there are seven eco-sins that companies commit, including: misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of a product or the practices of a company; hidden trade offs, for example, energy efficiency versus the production of hazardous chemicals; and vagueness, such as using terms like “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “natural.” Does a naturally-occurring substance like formaldehyde conjure up ideas of eco-consciousness for you?

One example of a greenwashing company is Shell. Shell Canada is currently providing grant money for up to $100,000 towards four major initiatives that improve and preserve the Canadian environment, and $10,000 grants to grassroots, action-oriented projects. And in its ad campaigns, Shell promotes itself as sustainable and eco-friendly. Is this true? Is Shell becoming a business leader in our ecologically pivotal time?

I think not. Shell is spending billions to be the lead company in the business of dirty and unconventional oil with the Alberta Tar Sands. That helps to extend our dependency on fossil fuels and contributes to the most destructive and greenhouse gas-intensive method of oil extraction on earth. The Tar Sands produces 40 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually for Canada through this project. Such projects make it impossible for us to meet any significant global climate agreement, like Kyoto, and probably Copenhagen.

However, there is an immune response to all this consumer corruption. Today, there are a number of groups that work as third parties in environmental labelling, such as EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. There are science-based marketing firms that assist in transforming companies to the ‘green path,’ like TerraChoice. And there are numerous references and indexes for the every-day consumer in verifying the genuine nature of a product, like Greenpeace’s Electronics Report and GreenwashingIndex.com.

But with this surge of green-labelling – including some companies that mimic third-party environmental certifications, such as HP’s Eco Highlights products – it’s no wonder why so many of us are still in the dark about greenwashing. Perhaps, as Treehugger.com argues, we need a universal eco-labelling system to make it easier for consumers to really go green.

Or perhaps we need to get our heads out of our greenwashing asses. Making change involves getting smarter. We cannot keep expecting someone else to do it for us. Being informed as a consumer and human being in our choices is our responsibility. Relying on the other guys is what got us into the mess we are in. Like brainwashing, let’s take back our brains back – and leave the washing for cleaning our hybrid cars with biodegradable products.

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Emily Hunter Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist and This Magazine’s resident eco-blogger. She is currently working on a book about young environmental activism, The Next Eco-Warriors, and is the eco-correspondent to MTV News Canada.

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