This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
Supermarkets offer an overwhelming choice when it comes to most household items. Take toilet paper. You can make your choice on the basis of what’s good for your purse, what looks good in your bathroom, what feels good, or what’s good for the environment.
But should environmental protection depend on each shopper choosing the environment above and beyond all those other considerations? The popularity of green choices waxes and wanes. It reached a peak around 1990 and then declined for a number of years, but it has been on the rise again recently.
In 2007 three out of four of Australians said that environmental performance was a factor in their shopping decisions and 30% said they were willing to pay 10% more for an item if it was better for the environment. But that was before the recession.
Even if shoppers do decide to make greener choices will it really help the environment? How do we know that the toilet paper packet with the frog on it that says “soft on nature, soft on you” is actually good for the environment? It says it is 100% biodegradable, but isn’t all toilet paper biodegradable? It’s very white. Does that mean its been bleached with chlorine? It says the manufacturer has purchased a hectare of pristine rainforest but that doesn’t sound like much. It says the manufacturer has planted 4000 trees. Is that significant? And how come the same company still sells other types of toilet rolls that are not so good for the environment if they care so much for the environment?
Welcome to the world of ‘green’ shopping where choice matters more than protecting the environment. A world where marketers would rather paint their products with greenwash, to persuade shoppers they are good for the environment, than make real environmental improvements.
Is greenwash just like any other advertising hyperbole? It is according to Joel Makower, who publishes a number of green business websites. “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.”
But it is not so easy for the average shopper to assess the validity of green product claims. You would have to do a considerable amount of research. It’s not like you can make judgements based on your own experience of the product.
Sometimes the environmental damage associated with a product is controversial and it is hard for the consumer to know who is right. Take kangaroo meat. It is sold as “Good for you – good for the environment”. The packaging explains that this is because kangaroo meat has low fat content and kangaroos do less damage to the top soil, are better adapted to drought conditions, and produce less methane.
However kangaroos cannot be farmed. They have to be shot in the wild at night and this raises various health and humane concerns. Death may not be quick. Joeys can be orphaned and left to die or bashed to death by the shooter. Carcasses may be carried around for most of the night in a truck before being stored for days in less than optimum hygienic conditions. Opponents argue that the kangaroo meat industry could threaten population numbers of some species.
How is the average mum supposed to know whether kangaroo meat is indeed healthy and good for the environment?
In 2007 Virgin Blue claimed to be Australia’s first “green airline” when it invited travellers to “contribute to a greener world” by paying to offset the emissions caused by their flights. However there are no accepted standards for what counts as an offset and claimed offsets are often not independently audited.
Planting trees as offsets is particularly problematic. How many trees represent a ton of carbon dioxide emissions? What happens if the trees burn down in a forest fire and the stored carbon goes up in smoke? What happens to the carbon when the trees get old and die or are logged?
What is more, tree plantations are not always good for the environment. They suck up all the water in an area, reduce soil fertility, increase erosion and compaction of the soil, and increase the risk of fire. The trees are planted in rows of trees of the same age and species that require heavy use of agrichemicals, including fertilisers, chemical weeding, herbicides that pollute the environment and kill native animals. They can lead to a loss of biodiversity because they are monocultures and their densely packed uniform rows do not provide the variations of form and structure found in a forest.
Is it really helping the environment when a company offers to offset your greenhouse gas emissions? Or is it really just a way for it to greenwash its product?
Shoppers who want to be sure that a product is good for the environment can look for some sort of official seal of approval or certification from an independent body. However marketers are on to this and are not beyond making up such a label. In other cases the certification scheme is run by an industry association that is not altogether unbiased. Other logos are not what they seem. The Panda symbol of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) merely indicates that the company has given money to WWF, not that the product is necessarily environmentally beneficial.
Even genuine certifications may not give the whole picture. Take recyclable symbols. Just because there is a recyclable symbol on the package it doesn’t mean that your local council can recycle it. You have to take notice of the number inside the arrows. Often numbers 4 and above cannot be recycled in your area. Also the symbol will probably relate to the packaging rather than the product inside.
Even if a product is recyclable or has a good energy rating this does not mean it is good for the environment. A washing machine may use less energy but it might also use more water and its manufacture may create toxic pollution. This is why environmentalists call for a whole life cycle analysis of products.
The only national accreditation that claims to do this whole product lifecycle analysis is the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA). It is a private not-for-profit organization and participation by manufacturers is voluntary. However few of its endorsed products are supermarket items. Many are targeted at the construction and commercial office fit-out industries. Moreover because of its lack of resources it has been criticised as not having enough depth of research.
The Trade Practices Act is supposed to protect consumers from false or misleading advertising claims, including those about the environmental benefits of a product. However there is no financial penalty for “misleading or deceptive conduct”. All the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) can do is seek a court injunction to stop the conduct.
There is also a voluntary labelling standard called AS 14021 Environmental Labels and Declarations. And there is the Australian Association of National Advertisers code of ethics which states that “Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not exploit community concerns in relation to protecting the environment by presenting or portraying distinctions in products or services advertised in a misleading way or in a way which implies a benefit to the environment which the product or services do not have.” Again this is guidance and is not enforced.
Despite these weak and voluntary rules, 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.
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.
Green consumerism is often promoted as a way of using the market to encourage manufacturers to produce more environmentally sound products. But it can achieve little without government regulation.
Government regulation is necessary to prohibit misleading environmental claims. It is also necessary to ensure that manufacturers continue to reduce the environmental impact of all their products, not just a special green line to suit the demands of environmentally aware shoppers. If it is good for the environment for detergents to be phosphate free, then they should all be phosphate free. Where is the advantage in making this a consumer choice?
Side Bar 1: Percentage of Australian ‘green’ products guilty of TerraChoice’s Seven Sins of Greenwashing
94% Hidden Trade-off
This involves highlighting some specific aspect of a product that is environmentally beneficial without considering other aspects which might be environmentally damaging. For example, paper made from recycled paper may still be bleached with chlorine.
Many products claim to be “good for the environment” in terms that are so poorly defined or broad that they should be dismissed as advertising hype.
43% No Proof
It is difficult for shoppers to know if the products is really as green as claimed as there is no supporting information readily available and no reliable third-party certification.
39% Worshiping False Labels
Sometimes packages include words or images that suggest that a product has been officially certified as environmentally sound by a recognised authority when it hasn’t.
An environmental claim may be true but it doesn’t help consumers choose between products because it is also true of all other products of in its category. For example, laundry powders are not tested on animals so any claim that a particular brand has not been tested on animals is irrelevant.
4% Lesser of Two Evils
An environmental claim may be true but divert attention from the greater environmental impact of this type of product. An example might be a fuel-efficient SUV.
No environmental claims were patently untrue although this was often because they were vague or provided no evidence.
Sidebar 2: Choice’s Advice for Avoiding Greenwash
Don’t be distracted by packaging, advertising hype or unrecognised logos. Consider the environmental impact of the product inside the packaging.
Specific and precise
Make sure any claims are defined, detailed and backed with evidence. For example, does it tell you what percentage of the product is made from recycled material?
Check the package lists all ingredients in plain English so that anyone can look them up if they want to.
Don’t be conned by narrow environmental claims that tell you nothing about the environmental impact of the product over its whole lifetime from manufacture through to disposal or reuse.
Third party certified
Check that certifications are made by an officially recognised and independent body such as the International Standards Organisation (ISO) but be aware of what the certification stands for. For example certification to ISO14001 means a company is committed to improve its processes not that its products are environmentally sound.
Helpful contact info
Don’t believe green claims if the manufacturer doesn’t provide
contact information and/or website addresses where you can obtain more information and evidence of their claims.