False and misleading claims can be hard to detect. TerraChoice offers the following categories that cover misleading claims:
Why does greenwash matter? Well not only are marketers shamelessly exploiting people with genuine environmental concerns, they are also avoiding the need to make genuine environmental improvements and innovations. They are also obscuring those companies that do actually go those extra green yards.
A SAAB advertisement in the 1990s featuring an exhaust pipe had the caption, “A BREATH OF FRESH AIR” and claimed that “Our cars actually clean the air”. It stated that tests had shown that a SAAB’s exhaust gases actually contained less hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide than the surrounding air in London traffic: “In other words, our car’s engine removed these pollutants from the environment!” (This ignored other toxic, carcinogenic and greenhouse emissions like carbon monoxide, benzene and carbon dioxide).
The most cynical marketers might simply use environmental imagery to conjure up the impression that a product is good for the environment without making any real claims at all; this is what Paul Gilding of Greenpeace has referred to as 'bung a dolphin on the label and we'll be right'.
A lot of products are emblazoned with images of the globe, pictures of foliage, official-looking environmental icons, and names like eco, natural, planet, green and enviro... Even if you search for the softest loo paper rather than the greenest, and only glance at the green claims or read them once you're home, their presence could make you feel that bit more satisfied with your purchase and likely to buy it again.
According to Joel Makower, who publishes a number of green business websites, greenwash is just like any other advertising hyperbole: “It’s akin to a mattress company claiming that their product is ‘Your ticket to a better night’s sleep,’” he says, “It’s not provable; it’s just hype. Consumers are left to use their own smarts to discern the difference.”
These are claims that do not give real information about the environmental credentials of a product, for example claiming to be CFC-free, when all products are because that is required by law. Products that have not been changed can be advertised as having an environmental aspect that they always had and that is typical of all such products. One example is the claim that laundry detergents are not being tested on animals when they never have been. Another is the claim that paper products, like toilet paper, are biodegradable, when that is almost always the case.
Another example is the use of "dolphin friendly" on tuna labels:
That sounds informative, but the tuna were caught in areas where there was no threat to dolphins. Perhaps cynically, it diverts the attention of consumers away from the harmful effects the tuna fishing method had on other threatened species such as turtles and sharks.
Some companies make the most out of measures they have been forced to take by the government, making it seem that they have undertaken the improvements because they care about the environment. For examples, in Australia, detergents have to be biodegradable so if a detergent claims to be biodegradable it is irrelevant to its green credentials.
Companies that have poor environmental records can also improve their image and increase their sales merely by using recycled paper in their products or packaging or making similar token adjustments.
Another example of irrelevance is given by Australian consumer organisation, Choice: "The bathroom cleaner Shower Power claims it 'meets or exceeds Australian Standard AS1792/1976 for biodegradability'. But that Australian standard was withdrawn in 1998."
When Choice, Australia’s largest consumer organization, surveyed non-food items from three different supermarket chains in 2008 it found “greenwash is out of control on supermarket shelves”. The organization had surveyed greenwash in 1996 but now it was “much worse” with a greater range of claims, many of which are unsubstantiated, irrelevant, misleading, or “downright lies”.
Choice found that 16% of items claimed to be ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘natural’ and ‘pure’, vague claims that mean little in the world of marketing. Many toxic substances are perfectly ‘natural’ including arsenic and mercury. That doesn’t mean they are safe. Another 7% of items were labelled CFC free. However CFCs were banned in aerosol spray cans many years ago so such claims, like the claims of toilet paper being biodegradable, are irrelevant when it comes to shopping choices.
Similarly North American environmental marketing firm, TerraChoice, surveyed 7 Australian stores in 2008 and 2009. It found that baby care products, cleaning products and health and beauty products made the most environmental claims but only five products out of the 866 products that made environmental claims did not engage in some form of greenwash.
TerraChoice's survey of over 5000 home and family products in Canada and the US found that only found that, in 2010, 95 percent of products with environmental claims committed one or more of its seven 'sins of greenwashing'.