The Missing Link

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For years sustainablists have been pushing the corporate sector to go green. A key question or doubt has hung over this push—will consumers really buy green stuff? For years pundits have pointed to polls that show that consumers are interested in buying green. The results have been mixed, if not downright negative, with green product sales often failing to live up to expectations.

The traditional analysis was quite simplistic: Canadians say they care about green in polls but are not willing to spend the money on green products at the checkout. This seemed to sum up the entire story.

There are a variety of reasons why green products have not lived up to expectations. People are often uncomfortable with anything new. Green is associated with being less effective, or requiring some type of compromise. Green can at times be more expensive (sometimes due to our backwards system of laws and taxation). The list goes on.

Over the past year or so dramatic statistics have surfaced. It turns out the belief that customers simply cannot be bothered to pay more is not the end of the story. Just over a year ago TerraChoice came out with their landmark study looking at over 1,000 ‘eco’ products at a Canadian big box store. TerraChoice believes that free markets, combined with credible claims about green goods, could be the most powerful factor in creating a green economy. They were also concerned about the possible rejection of ‘eco’ products in the marketplace. This study featured ‘The Six Sins of Greenwashing,’ which are listed at the end of this article. TerraChoice outlined six ways in which companies can intentionally and unintentionally misinform consumers through green claims. The ‘Six Sins’ have garnered global attention and the organization is currently working on a follow-up to the study.

Surprisingly, the TerraChoice study showed that almost 99% of the more than 1,000 assessed ‘eco’ products were guilty of some kind of greenwashing. Green claims associated with those products were found to be false, over-stated or misrepresentative. This only began to cloud the green product picture.

Environics did some polling last year and helped plug another gap in the equation. It is not simply that Canadians are cheap. Environics found that a majority of Canadians (51%) only believe that some claims about green products are actually true. 75% say that only some or few of the claims about green products are true.

Clearly, many people do not believe what they are being sold when it comes to ‘green’ products. If people don’t believe these claims are valid, why would they bother taking the chance on a new product or spending more for the greener option?

Well over half the country doubts they can consistently find valid green products on the shelves, and if the TerraChoice study is of any indication, it can be difficult to find any truly green mainstream products. TerraChoice’s results (99% of products failing) make the group of serious doubters look relatively small. These numbers do not allow us to compare apples to apples, but they do paint a richer picture.

Last summer, the Federal Competition Bureau came out with guidelines, unexpectedly early, that are meant to inform companies about what kinds of claims they should and should not make about their products’ green credentials. The new guidelines will take effect in July 2009 to give companies time to adjust. Larry Bryenton, the Competition Bureau’s Acting Assistant Deputy Commissioner, says that the hope for these guidelines is to encourage companies making green claims to provide greater clarity, avoid vagueness, and only make verifiable and substantiated statements.

According to one other Competition Bureau employee, when they pass such guidelines, they find that 85% of the market place automatically falls in line and follows the new suggested rules. The problem is these are guidelines, not laws, and it is not expected that they will be enforced. According to Scott McDougall at TerraChoice, these new guidelines are not materially different from the last set of guidelines, originally issued in 1991. He said that the only factor that would make a major difference would be real enforcement of the guidelines.

Even if these new guidelines are top notch, what do we do when 15% of companies fail to tow the line? Consumers are, as we have seen, justifiably skeptical, and every time we read another story about some company greenwashing, consumers become that much more disillusioned with the entire green movement. People become jaded and disempowered, and are less likely to believe true green claims anywhere. We cannot afford to have even a small minority of companies continue to sell ‘brown’ products under the veil of green.

Scott McDougall does not believe that all of the false green claims are made intentionally. Multinational companies, he says, only make major changes in the face of shifts they perceive as real trends in terms of consumer preference. The flood of ‘green’ goods in the marketplace is clearly in response to newfound interest that is expected to have a lasting effect.

He also notes that each company has a legal team vetting all the communications they put forward. While this procedure does not always have the impact green advocates are looking for, these legal teams do make efforts to ensure their companies are not making inappropriate claims for which they could be found liable.

Scott McDougall goes on to say that so long as people are reminded about the ever-growing environmental problems and believe they can do something about them, they will remain engaged and motivated, potentially through the purchase of greener goods.

While the picture is not rosy, our understanding of the situation is improving. Only a few years ago, we would have thought that we would have to find a way to subsidize green goods and calm consumers’ insecurity about these purchases. Now we can see that other challenges may take priority. We need to look at mechanisms to ensure consumers have the necessary knowledge to make good green purchases. Ideally, with better information, people will also be included make fewer, more targeted, purchases. Here at WorldChanging, we’re very interested in such mechanisms.

We can see the beginnings of a private sector ready and willing to do its due diligence. Tools and studies like the ones highlighted above can help in development of a green marketplace. Finally, a clearer sense of the effectiveness of guidelines can help policy-makers decide when and where stricter enforcement is necessary to ensure that claims made by the private sector are relevant, verifiable and truly green.

Front Image: (Image of TerraChoice Logo) - Credit: TerraChoice
Inside Image: (Image of Scott McDougall) - Credit: TerraChoice

The following are the Six Sins of Greenwashing. Go to the link below on the TerraChoice website to read the explanation of each 'sin.'

The Six Sins of Greenwashing

  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
  2. Sin of No Proof
  3. Sin of Vagueness
  4. Sin of Irrelevance
  5. Sin of Fibbing
  6. Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils


Another interesting approach to the problem of Greenwashing is the one that George Monbiot is pursuing on his "Turn up the Heat" website,

Invite people to submit examples of greenwashing—then have journalists write them up. Ideally build enough publicity around it that you have a big effect. With Monbiot's trademark style, it's good fun, too.

Posted by: Mark Tovey on March 16, 2009 3:03 PM

Excellent Job Jordy...

Remember it is legal to say " we are contributing to sustainability" and so the big question is what is your contribution - you gave away .0001 % of your profits to the United Way? That is contributing... and it is not what the consumer expects... advertising companies have been doing this for years... they do not lie... they merely intentionally create a message and images that leave you choosing to believe they are good...

time for some new methods of measurement... you tube??? from the front lines??? guerilla video footage?

Keep the pressure on... transparency is our only truth!

Posted by: Anita on March 17, 2009 8:49 PM

I don't like to advocate in support of regulated bodies but in this case I think the industry needs to rally behind a strong regulating non-profit for consumer goods. There are several out there but how reliable are they and how much effort has been put forth in educating the consumer on the difference? We have learned to trust the LEED seal for building standards and an array of organic food regulating bodies, so why can the bodies that regulate consumer goods not solve this problem and win consumer and industry support?

Posted by: Robert on March 20, 2009 6:51 PM

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