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.

Click to read the November 2007 TerraChoice study

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….
yeah right!)

Ralph Velasquez
Executive Director of Sustainability
Tremco, Inc.

Contact Ralph at: phone (VM) 877.510.2681 or

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.

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