If consumers are to be able to consider all aspects of a product's life-cycle and the policies of the company that markets it, an environmental audit should be done. Without such an assessment, it is easy for people to fall for what Juliet Kellner calls the 'bit-less-bad' trap. This also corresponds to TerraChoice's Sin of Lesser of Two Evils:
A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.
Peter Dykstra, media director of Greenpeace, USA, says, 'It's not that all these ads are untrue. They depict 5 percent of environmental virtue to mask the 95 percent of environmental vice'. Others, such as Dadd and Carothers, ask whether we should buy recycled paper from a company that pollutes rivers with pulp mill effluent.
Reference: Adam Werbach, ‘The false gospel of green marketing’, The Guardian, 21 October 2011.
Some marketers greenwash by focusing on an inconsequential environmental feature, like wrapping a steak in a compostable package and calling it "climate-friendly". Other marketers adopt green packaging without changing their behaviours, like Campbell's Soup, which launched an Earth Day green-colored soup can, but didn't bother buying organic chicken or lowering the salt content.
A claim suggesting 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. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off is one of the most frequently used, according to TerraChoice's North American study.
People might feel righteous using unleaded fuel. But overuse of private motor vehicles, even using unleaded fuel, is still harmful to the environment. Advertisers targeting 'would-be green' motorists do not suggest that people do not buy cars or drive less. Similarly, businesses such as The Body Shop have been heralded around the world for their green products. Yet some environmentalists question the need for cosmetics at all, and point out that producing products in an environmentally sound way might be encouraging consumerism.
In one full-page advertisement, Toyota featured an Australian beach scene with families sheltering in the shade of new Toyota Camrys atop beach umbrella poles. The headline was “TO PROTECT YOU AND THE OZONE LAYER, TOYOTA IS THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN CAR MAKER TO HAVE CFC-FREE AIR CONDITIONING” and it went on: “To help save the earth’s delicate ozone layer, and protect everyone from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV radiation, Toyota Camry ....” In this way consumers could feel they were helping the environment by buying a new car, despite the wider environmental implications of such a choice.
In 2002 Environmental Defense Action Network accused the EPA of misleading consumers with its "Green Vehicle Guide" which it claimed was "loaded with misleading ratings that could help manufacturers 'greenwash' many vehicles that are really more polluting than average".
EPA uses poor vehicle classifications and provides incomplete information that prevents accurate environmental comparisons across the vehicle market. For example, the Mercedes ML320 SUV receives a better rating than the Mercedes E320 large 4-wheel drive sport wagon that has the same engine with better fuel economy (5 mpg higher) and lower tailpipe emissions. Further, EPA has rigged its emissions scale to downplay the serious health impacts of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and fine particles that cause respiratory problems.