Features | Mean green advertising machine

How to avoid being tricked by false environmental claims

We see a field. Lush, vibrant, green grass rolls in calm waves of vegetation to the horizon under the clear, blue sky. Bright red poppies flourish here and there, turning their faces toward the sun. We see the splendour of nature, a flourishing expanse of serene blossoming and growth. It is bucolic, tranquil, idyllic – it is a lie – a plastic label wrapped around eight litres of thick, sticky, navy blue detergent, filled with phosphates and far from “green.” Detergents like these choke lakes and streams with duckweed and algae, disrupt ecosystems, and kill wildlife. And yet, it felt good to buy it. I felt a gratifying twinge of self-righteousness. I was doing my part for the environment, or so I thought.

I fell victim to greenwashing: a marketing technique that uses “green” imagery and vague, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims to sell less than sustainable products, people, or services.

Greenwashing is relatively easy to spot so long as you’re willing to adopt a healthy amount of skepticism and know what to look for:
– Hidden environmental trade-offs: Exxon Mobil claims to have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions even though they produce over 3 million barrels of oil every day to be burned (based on 2008 figures).

– No proof: Many cleaners claim to be “biodegradable” without listing a reliable certification, a percentage, or the length of time their product takes to biodegrade. Given a couple of thousand years, even the toughest plastics will break down.

– “Green” products produced in dirty factories: In order to build the battery of one supposedly “green” hybrid car, the nickel has to be mined in Canada, shipped to China to be processed, shipped to Japan to be put into a battery, and then shipped back to the assembly plant to be put into a car.

– The use of scientific-sounding jargon: A shampoo bottle advertising 80 per cent post-consumer HDPE (High Density Polyethylene).

– Vague assertions and fluffy language: Claiming to be “all natural” doesn’t mean you’re “green.” Formaldehyde, heavy metals, and uranium are all technically “natural.”

– False labels or certifications: Beware of tiny, green, official-looking logos that say things like “eco certified,” “eco-safe,” or “eco assured.” Companies often invent these logos to “certify” their own products. Some legitimate labels include the EPA’s “Design for the Environment” label, Eco-Cert, EcoLogo, Energy Star, EPEAT, FSC, Green Seal, SFI, USDA Certified Organic, and Water Sense.

– Irrelevant assertions: Many air fresheners claim to be “CFC-Free” even though CFCs have been illegal for decades.

– Claiming to be the lesser of evils: An SUV claiming to have lower emissions than other vehicles in its class.

– Blatant lies: “Non-toxic” bleach.

– Associative green imagery: The luxuriant, green tropical leaves on a cosmetics package. The images are extraneous and completely unrelated to the product.

The roots of greenwashing lie in the history of environmentalism. At some point in the latter half of the 20th century, environmentalism stopped being just a fringe movement of hippies and idealists. It gradually moved into the mainstream. Apocalyptic narratives of an environmental endgame began to percolate through the media and the constant effort of activists and artists exposed some of the devastating injuries we inflict on the planet. The ghastly scars left by open-pit mines, smoke stacks hurling toxins into the atmosphere, choking metropolitan smog, melting glaciers, levelled forests, dead landscapes, extinctions – the threat became familiar, people became aware, and public opinion slowly shifted toward environmental sustainability.

This was a huge success for environmentalism. The movement toward “buying green” began at the grassroots and expanded until spending habits began to reflect a widespread desire for environmental sustainability. According to Futerra Sustainability Communications, “ethical spending” in the U.K. increased by 81 per cent between 2002 and 2008. The “green dollar” mushroomed beyond all expectations, and what was a tiny niche market in the ’90s has become an impressive trend. In an economic system with the consumer at the centre, this shift toward ethical spending should theoretically have precipitated enormous changes in the environmental practices of corporations and producers.

In appearance, this is exactly what happened. Marketers responded to the burgeoning demand for environmentally “friendly” products with an explosion of green advertising. By appropriating the imagery and vocabulary of the environmental movement, marketers were able to tap into the impetus of “environmental friendliness.” Suddenly, everything from kitty litter to cars is marketed with a green focus. In a survey of six popular magazines’ advertising trends – Time, Fortune, National Geographic, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair – a TerraChoice study found that green marketing rose from two per cent of the total advertisements in 1999 to over 10 per cent in 2008. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of “green” products in 24 North American big-box stores increased at an average rate of 79 per cent per year. Now, green marketing has become so ubiquitous that many people don’t even notice it. It has blended into our cultural landscape. All of this wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that most of what looks like plain, honest green marketing is in fact deceptive or disingenuous at best.

I’m not talking about a few products, either. Greenwashing is a massive phenomenon. According to the TerraChoice study, 98 percent of the 2,219 products they surveyed were greenwashed to some extent, leaving a meagre 25 innocent products. Children’s toys, cosmetics, and household cleaners were the worst offenders of all. Of the 18 children’s toys they surveyed in Canada, they found 53 “green” claims, none of which were legitimate. The same held true for the 119 baby products and the 236 claims they made. In Canada, 215 common cosmetics made 613 claims and all of them were guilty of greenwashing; cleaners made 537 claims and only three products were properly labelled. While most greenwashing errors occur because of marketers’ laziness or ignorance rather than malevolent intent, the result remains clear: most of the “green” we see falls short of the truth.

You might ask, “So what?”

Aside from the fact that greenwashing is essentially lying (and last I checked, lying is a bad thing), it threatens to undermine the positive effects of any consumer-led sustainability movement. For every environmentally conscientious consumer who buys a falsely labelled, greenwashed product, a similar product making legitimate claims loses support. It eliminates the potential benefits of a green purchase. Although many companies have actually ameliorated their products or manufacturing processes and ought to have support for doing so, greenwashing takes business away from these legitimately green companies and their work is for nought. According to TerraChoice, legitimate eco-labelling in North American big-box stores nearly doubled from 14 to 23 per cent of total “green” products between 2007 and 2009. While this statistic is encouraging, greenwashing renders any real green efforts effectively useless by diverting support away from where it is deserved.

More threatening than anything, though, is the cynicism greenwashing creates. If consumers can’t trust green claims at all, they’ll get angry, they’ll get fed up, and they’ll stop caring. If we fall back into complacency and stop giving a shit, nothing will be done and decades of environmental progress will be wasted. We can’t let that happen.

The obvious first step is to avoid greenwashed products. Learning to recognize greenwashing takes little time, and withholding our individual capital exerts pressure on companies that aren’t green. Letting others know about greenwashing is also important. Advertisers need to be held accountable for disingenuous messages, and the more people that are doing this, the better.

But is this enough? To help answer this question and shed some light on the future of media activism vis-à-vis greenwashing, I spoke to Kalle Lasn, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Adbusters Magazine.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the deception of greenwashing, Lasn explained. “Corporations are interested in selling stuff. They’re not on some kind of do-goody mission to save the planet. They’ve discovered that it’s hard to sell to an ecologically-minded population without some green component to their brand or advertising.” While there is always a genuine component to this “ecological mind-shift” and many corporations have really changed their corporate culture for the better, being completely green is rarely possible, and companies resort to greenwashing. Calling them to account for this deception is an important but incomplete solution.

“The real problem is that there’s a fundamental contradiction between the $1-trillion per year advertising industry [that’s 12 zeros!] and being green. Ultimately, what being green requires is that we consume less, not that we buy more green products,” illustrated Lasn. In part, green advertising has absorbed any impetus for the fundamental changes originally espoused by the environmental movement and diverted it toward buying. “Our media systems give us a bit of information while prompting us to consume at the same time,” he said.

Consumerism is predicated on constant consumption, and the resources being consumed must come from the earth in one way or another. Even if we buy “green” and this extraction becomes slightly more sustainable, the total amount of resources we’re consuming hasn’t really changed and the environment still suffers. Buying will never really save the planet. Consumerism will never become truly sustainable. Instead, we need to go the next step and move beyond consumption as a solution.

Remember the first of the three Rs: Reduce! If we consume less, fewer resources will be extracted from the earth. Lasn explained that consuming less is important but still only a partial solution. “We have a simplicity movement. We have Buy Nothing Days. We have a small percentage of the people who have already recognized the problem, and they’re buying local, buying less, growing their own gardens, and taking their money-power away from mega-corporations. A lot of us are already doing this, but I think it is a very tiny percentage, and this will never go too far. Ultimately, I think the only solution is to go for fundamental changes.”

“That is the real story here. We, the consumers, are in denial about what’s really happening. Deep down in our guts we know that our children and future generations could be in big trouble because of the way we’re living, because of the way we’re consuming, and because most of us in the rich first world have five-planet lifestyles,” said Lasn, drawing attention to the fact that our one Earth does not have enough resources to sustain our lifestyles.

“There’s a contradiction not only within the corporations that are selling us stuff, but there’s denial and contradiction in our own lives. The two somehow collude, and instead of reducing consumption; instead of taking some power from corporations and giving it back to civil society; instead of realizing that we don’t need a $1-trillion per year advertising industry telling us to consume more; instead of thinking about different information delivery systems and coming up with a way to communicate that isn’t so commercial; instead of going even deeper and realizing that our whole economic paradigm, the one taught at your university, is fundamentally flawed and that we need to move from a neo-classical economic paradigm to an ecological one; instead of making the fundamental changes we need, we are changing light bulbs, buying hybrid cars, and doing the frothy stuff that doesn’t actually make a huge difference at all,” he said.

According to Lasn, most of us haven’t realized what’s at stake: “There hasn’t been a scary enough tipping point. Not enough wise people have realized what’s really happening. We need people with the guts to wake up out of denial and actually confront the cracks in the system instead of just reading articles about greenwashing and doing that surface stuff that doesn’t really count.”

“What we really need is a cultural revolution.”

And the onus to act is ours. Whether you want to call it a cultural revolution, a mind-shift, or a change in paradigms, it’s just as clear now as it has been for 20 years: something needs to be done – about greenwashing, about corporate influence, about the myriad of other problems we recognize every day – and we’re the ones to do it. Young people, students, us; we need to realize that our education and youth make us responsible, whether we like it or not, for any changes we want to see in the world. Rather than hiding behind an insipid haze of irony and complacency, doing nothing, and abetting the problems with our tacit consent, we need to act. There are no excuses. We have all the tools. We are pure, passionate potential.