Greenwashing. What It Is. How It’s Governed. What To Do When You Spot It.

by Diane Vautier on December 5, 2010

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the disingenuous representation of a product, service, company or organization as environmentally friendly, sustainable, natural, or green.  It’s something that happens when a company knowingly or unknowingly misrepresents itself to consumers.

It’s easy to understand how a company knowingly misrepresents itself. The packaging may say it’s green because it contains natural ingredients, yet the company knows that those ingredients may be harmful, toxic, carcinogenic, or consume huge amounts of resources to produce. It may in fact, not be very sustainable at all when looked at from a product life cycle perspective. In a case like this, the company may be misrepresenting itself to the consumer in order to increase sales with no regard for long-term sustainability.

Some companies may not be as insincere. They may be genuinely trying to move toward a sustainable production practice or eco-friendly service, but due to their enthusiasm, jump the gun on promoting it without the verifiable proof they need to back up their claim.  Statistics support that as companies learn more about being green, their ability to represent their level of greenness in an honest way, also improves.

Admittedly, this green evolution a difficult time for both producers and consumers, as they try to understand the green marketing guidelines and communicate truthfully.

So There Are Rules?

Yes. The Federal Trade Commission in 1992 issued the Green Guidelines for marketing.  On its website, the FTC itself admits that enforcement is a challenge. “Because the Green Guides are administrative interpretations of the law, they do not have the force and effect of law and they are not independently enforceable. However, if a marketer makes claims that are inconsistent with the Guides, the FTC can take action under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices.”

As the number of green products swells, and the green trend continues to blossom, the FTC is busy updating policies to try and keep pace with the movement.On October 6, 2010 the FTC issued a full report on the proposed revision to the Green Guidelines, which is open for public comment through December 10, 2010.  If you have strong opinion, read through the proposed guides and add your two cents to the discussion.  If you want a brief recap, here’s a  short two-page summary of the proposed Green Guides.

What To Do When You Spot It?

The easiest way, and some would ague the most effective way to discourage greenwashing is to simply not purchase the goods or services.  If you have doubt surrounding authenticity, keep your money in your pocket and move on.  Lost business is a surefire way to express your displeasure.

If you feel you strongly about your experience, you can report greenwashing claims directly to the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or at their website. Be aware however, that according to the FTC website complaint page, “The FTC does not resolve individual consumer complaints.”Rather, your complaint helps them detect patterns of wrong-doing that may lead to investigation and/or litigation.  The revised green guidelines should help the FTC with more actionable enforcement methods.

If you don’t have the patience for government intervention, there are advocacy and industry watchdog groups that keep a close eye on greenwashing offenders.  Here’s a short list of some of them:

What companies have you found to greenwash and how have you dealt with it? Please share your thoughts and resources such as consumer advocacy groups that help index or list offenders.

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