The Six Sins of Greenwashing
By Ralph Velasquez, Guest Contributing Editor
Perspectives from the Green Boardroom
November 28, 2011
Everywhere you turn these days you see a product claiming to be green in some fashion or form. Whether it’s a consumer product or something offered business to business, being green is the hot marketing topic. With this explosion of green marketing, the consumer is rapidly becoming inundated with various claims and is finding it more and more difficult to determine if the claims being made are accurate.
In many cases the claims being made don’t appear to the consumer to be accurate in some way or we instinctively feel something is amiss. This is rapidly leading to a consumer who is becoming indifferent to the claims being made or even distrustful of the company making the claim.
Since the vegetative roof industry lives in the market segment where “green" claims are being made every day as part of the solution provided by green roofs and living walls, I thought it would be a good time to address this issue from a broad perspective. I’m sure many if not all of you have thought about how best to put your product in its best light, while attempting to be accurate. You also have seen various claims by others in your industry that make you pause to think about how accurate they are being in their claims.
We all have a tendency to believe we have done it right and others have stretched it a bit over the line, when it comes to various marketing claims. Because of this typical human trait, I thought it might be helpful to share with you a study on greenwashing that I thought was well written and let you apply these standards to your green marketing approach and the green marketing approach of others.
Let the chips fall where they may, but hopefully it will do for you what it did for me. It helped me and continues to help me measure our green claims and stay within the lines when I’m coloring.
The study was a 2007 market research study conducted by the TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Group, entitled:
The “Six Sins of Greenwashing™”
A Study of Environmental Claims in North American Consumer Markets
The study basically was conducted amongst six category leading big box stores. The survey identified 1,753 claims on 1,018 products. The findings of the study were compared against the current standards of best practice in environmental marketing. These included: the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumers Union and the Canadian Consumer Affairs Branch.
The results found that all but ONE at least committed one of the six sins. OUCH!
Ok, so what are these sins?
1) Sin of the hidden trade off.
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off is committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on a single environmental attribute (the recycled content of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes (recycled content and chlorine free bleaching) without attention to other important, or perhaps more important, environmental issues (such as energy, global warming, water, and forestry impacts of paper). Such claims are not usually false, but are used to paint a “greener” picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would support.
2) Sin of no proof.
Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification, commits the Sin of No Proof. (For this research, we determined there to be ‘no proof’ if supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase or at the product website.)
3) Sin of vagueness.
The Sin of Vagueness is committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer.
4) Sin of Irrelevance.
The Sin of Irrelevance is committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. It is irrelevant and therefore distracts the consumer from finding a truly greener option.
5) Sin of the lesser of two evils.
These are “green” claims that may be true within the product category, but which risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
6) Sin of fibbing.
The Sin of Fibbing is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.
How often were these “sins” committed?
Graphic Source: The “Six Sins of Greenwashing™” 2007.
Thank goodness “out and out” lying was only 1%. These results seem to indicate we don’t typically try to mislead, but that we either intentionally or unintentionally don’t tell the whole story. I choose to believe that many times it is unintentional but am not naïve to think some of it is indeed intentional by the company.
You know, there is another good guide to remember when crafting your marketing messages. It happens whenever someone is sworn in on a witness stand, to “tell the truth, the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth." It’s the “whole” truth part that seems to be the hardest to adhere to when marketing green attributes. This was also true as a kid and you had to fess up about something you did.
Now that we know what these sins are, the hard part comes in shining this light on ourselves and our organizations. Before we get ready to shine that light, we need to remember that it is always easy to judge others' weaknesses by your strengths, so we should tread cautiously and not move too quickly to judgment before we fully understand the situation. With that caution out there, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shine the light on our own marketing practices.
If you’d like specific examples of these common mistakes, then I’d suggest you read the TerraChoice study in its entirety. For additional compliance and guidance, you can also read the FTC’s Green Guides and the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or the Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers, published in June 2008 by the Canadian Standards Association.
These days I get an opportunity to interact with many companies within the built environment industry as well as those within many other market segments. What I see is that the green roof industry is not the only one that struggles with getting this issue right.
Plus, like you, I see it every day in the consumer world, where I buy products and services. What does a company mean when it says it is eco-friendly, has natural flavors or is good for the environment? Even if it says it’s recycled, what’s recycled? Does the product have a specific component that’s recycled or is the packaging recycled? Even though I might have a better understanding of the issues than some, I still feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of green marketing hitting me every day.
In the green roof industry, we no doubt have been guilty of some of the same greenwashing sins outlined in this study. Again, I hope it’s because we were a young industry and very excited about a truly transformative solution to many of the issues that face our society. That said, the industry is growing up and the ignorance of our early youth must now move into the responsible young adult stage of maturity. In this stage, we might still make mistakes but they should become less frequent and we can no longer claim ignorance or a lack of understanding.
So our challenge is to evaluate what we say and do with each message we create, giving our best efforts in telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about our industry. We have a great story to tell even if it’s not a perfect one. Where the solution has drawbacks, then we need to be forthright about them, while we remain strong advocates for the green roof’s attributes.
I was always told there are no miracles in a can, or on a roll, just the best solution for the problem. I think that this is still good advice when marketing your green features. There is no miracle here, just a great solution that can get better with innovation.
So go forth and market your wares, just don’t commit any of the greenwashing “sins” otherwise you might find that “repentance” can be very expensive! Sounds like a good story line for a future follow-up article…
The legal and monetary implications of greenwashing to a corporation.
From the green boardroom,
Ralph Velasquez….aka….the Green Lantern
(Yes, this is an untouched picture of me….
Executive Director of Sustainability
Contact Ralph at: phone (VM) 877.510.2681 or email@example.com.
Publisher's Note: Look for Ralph's follow-up of The 2007 “Six Sins of Greenwashing™” report in December's year end piece that will compare changes to its newer 2010 counterpart.
Sustainability, The Journey Forward
By Ralph Velasquez, Guest Contributing Editor
Perspectives from the Green Boardroom
February 18, 2011
Hello everyone…..I’m baaack. As I promised or threatened, depending on whether or not you were a fan of my earlier columns in this space, I am writing my first guest column. For the sake of the new readers, I used to write a monthly column for this website, writing first about green/vegetative roofs, then on a broad sustainable level as it related to rooftops.
Last summer I undertook a new role for my company, Tremco, responsible for implementing our sustainable initiative, company-wide. With these new responsibilities, I felt I could no longer write a monthly column, telling Linda and Aramis (illustrious founders of greenroofs.com) that I would be withdrawing as a monthly contributing editor. Linda, in a moment of losing her senses, asked me to stay on as a guest editor, contributing articles when I could about sustainability from this more expansive scope. Because she is so insistent and before she came to her senses, I agreed to this request, hence this article. So, if you like the article, it’s mine and if you don’t, it's Linda’s fault. See Linda, I told you might be sorry about your offer.
Well then, what have I been up to and why should you care? Hopefully, you will care because you are a dedicated person in your area of expertise and care or are curious about sustainability at some additional level. I hope that what I have to share will help you in your daily journey. What I have been up to is all about taking a journey, one that is designed to last ten years. In the process we will enhance where we have been and transform ourselves into something we aspire to be, a WORLD-CLASS Sustainable Company, that just happens to make its living in the world of the built environment.
As I have started this process, I’ve already met some great people along the way, faced challenges, had a few defeats, and savored small victories. I am learning some things along the way that if I can share them with you, hopefully will help you in your journey. So, I promise to keep the advertising for my company to a minimum and just use this platform as a way to share the lessons I’ve learned with you. Fair enough? OK, then let’s begin!
First, what is sustainability? It’s referred to as many things, here’s a few.
Pretty much, they all mean the same things and are trying to communicate the same idea, sustainability is more than about environmental considerations, it must include a social and economic aspect. Where we hit a sweet spot, there true balanced sustainability exists. To further understand the concept we must also look from these three pillars to a widely used and/or accepted definition.
A common definition used by many is this one developed by the Brundtland Commission in their report:
Slide used with permission of
Tremco Roofing and Building Maintenance.
Ok. If we need to think about all three legs of this “sustainability stool,” then the next question is what to do with this as it relates to ourselves and our companies. I’ve seen many around the country struggling with this most basic question. The first struggle is getting one's head around the idea that it’s as much about people as it is environmental. In fact, I’ve found most people don’t equate the idea of people with sustainability, focusing mostly or strictly on environmental issues.
Second, the idea of being profitable or prosperous also being a part of the idea is somehow counter-intuitive for many. I think that is because many of us have grown up with seeing the aggressive stance of previous versions of various environmental groups, facing off against corporations. We have grown up with the idea that being environmentally aware and prosperity driven are exclusive ideas, when in fact this can be far from the truth. Notice I said can be, not always is. One can be driven for profits at all costs and the environmental considerations can suffer, while others have found that a revolution of their thinking about the environment and how their business interfaces with it can prove to be very profitable, making them quite prosperous.
As we struggle to understand, we are faced with what to do about this new knowledge. How do I balance everything I do in my business every day with the idea I must consider the three parts of sustainability and think not only about my needs today, but make sure I do not impede the ability of future generations to do what they need to do.
Let’s personalize that a bit more, who are these “future generations?” That would be your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren. Today, would you turn out the lights, take away the water in your house, make your kids breathe polluted air, make your young children work in sweat shops, or take away the ability for them to be prosperous enough to pay the bills, all so you could enjoy it only for yourself? Most would not.
If true, then why would we do it to them in the future? Don’t think we would if we could see the future like we can see the present. We must find this balance, so we can enjoy the fruits of our labor today and ensure our future generations have the same choice.
All right, let’s accept for the sake of getting on with this article that you agree we should think about all three aspects of sustainability and future generations, now what? The first questions would be, where do we/I want to go? What is our vision of changing from where we are to where we want to go?
Next question, where am I now? Following question, how do I get from where I am now to where I want to go? Then the usual other questions, right? What resources will I need? Can we do this by ourselves or do we need help? What if we fail? What changes will I have to make? AND there it is, the word that causes us all to cringe…
Change! The monster that lurks in every business, home and person, we hate to change. Now out comes all our biases, all designed to attack the real monster, the change monster. I’ve read and re-read a great book entitled “the Change Monster” by Jeanie Daniel Duck; it has been a great help to me as I navigate our company changes and think you’ll find it enlightening as well.
We started our journey in late 2009, forming vision, goals and action plans; by late summer of 2010 we started the implementation process. Remember, it is a long journey not a sprint. Fairly quickly I found what was described in Ms. Duck’s book, that organizational change always involves personal change.
When you are faced with changing people, they all don’t want to change. Some embrace it quickly and are enthusiastic, some hang back to see how this is going to play out, and some resist passively, some actively.
If you are going to embrace sustainability, expect the same. We embraced the idea that given our scale of change we would need outside help, so we engaged outside help, and this has proven to be worth the investment. Consider this carefully.
Probably the most important thing you can do is make sure that whoever sits at the top of the organization is fully onboard with the idea of embarking on this journey. If you are a small business with one or two employees, that means you, if a larger corporation that means the CEO or the President.
Fortunately for us, it started right from the top with our group President and was fully embraced by our Division President - this has been huge for me personally as change has begun. There is nothing like having support from the top to make your job possible!
We are now several months down the road of this ten year journey and as I said earlier, I have experienced both victories and setbacks. Our process has been spectacular in some regards, but being the impatient person I am, I always think we can be further then we are. The successes have come in packages of all sizes from an entry level administrative person coming up with a great idea for saving paper or someone in our factories removing something from the waste stream, to more grand success like the completion of our corporate headquarters sustainable makeover. The renovation’s most noteworthy sustainable features include four types of sustainable roofing systems:
~ A vegetated roof featuring local plants. Low impact lighting and a water capture system will be integrated with the roof, as will a pathway of recycled materials. Signs will describe the roof’s features and provide information about the plant palette.
~ The ENERGY STAR® qualified Rock-It™ roof surfacing system, composed of white gravel set in white adhesive.
~ A white, reflective, single ply system installed beneath a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) system.
~ A thin-film rooftop PV system that will be used to generate electricity for the building. A second PV system on a white reflective roof will be installed on the South building. (If interested, you can see this @ www.tremcogreenHQ.com).
This was a great example of our leaders putting our money where our mouths are and it has become something we have become very proud of as a group of people working within our company.
Not everything is all rosy, as we find that some of our action plans for this fiscal year are harder than we thought. We have found that one string is often attached to another and you need to change something else before you can even hope to tackle the action plan you established while sitting in the comforts of your planning sessions. We have found that not everything is easily measured with our current way of doing business and while the changes required will be ultimately good for us, that “change” thing makes everyone a bit nervous, especially when the way it has served us well in the past. We have also found that sometimes what you want to do now must wait, because the industry is not quite ready for your idea or the economics just don’t make sense, yet.
Again, I remind myself and others, it’s a ten year journey and not a sprint, so we need to stay within our scope for the present and work towards the bold goals we have set for ourselves over the coming decade. Don’t get discouraged with small steps!
Finally, what I’ve learned so far is that many are ready! They are ready to believe that they can make a difference. They are ready to find creative ways to mesh people, plant and prosperity into what they do every day. We’re a pretty motivated bunch overall, but this has challenged us and more than not, we are responding to the challenge. This has made my role exciting, watching what effect a true commitment by a group of people can have on their company, their industry and in part, their world.
It’s still BIG and a bit early to “call the election” but I’m encouraged. Hang in there with me and I hope our journey will inspire you on yours. Perhaps together, we really can change the world, one step at a time!
Until I re-surface the next time for air, I remain,
Your guest editor with a view
Executive Director of Sustainability
Contact Ralph at: phone (VM) 877.510.2681 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past Sustainable Roofing Technologies Articles
Past ASTM Task Force Updates
The opinions expressed by our Guest Feature writers and editors may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Greenroofs.com, and are offered to our readers to simply present individual views and experiences and open a dialogue of further discussion, debate and research. Enjoy, and if you have a particular comment, please contact the author or send us an email to: email@example.com.
Back to Top