Claiming the earth
It's not difficult to find misleading green claims on the supermarket shelves.
The bathroom cleaner Shower Power claims it "meets or exceeds Australian Standard AS1792/1976 for biodegradability". But that Australian standard was withdrawn in 1998.
We were told by its makers in January that Shower Power had just been certified to the new standard, and was rolling out new labels.
But in April at the time of writing, we still found products on the shelves referring to the old standard and the website hadn’t been updated.
A packet of Glad Tuff Stuff garbage bags claims "when properly incinerated, polyethylene breaks down to carbon dioxide and water vapour". But what about the rubbish you put in the bag?
Why make green claims?
Green claims are about environmental sustainability, recycling, energy and water efficiency, or impacts on animals and the natural environment. They can be self-declared statements, symbols and graphics on product packages and labels.
A lot of products are emblazoned with images of the globe, pictures of foliage, official-looking environmental icons, and names like eco, natural, planet, green and enviro. Many green claims are on the rear label, or stamped into the packet.
Even if you search for the softest loo paper rather than the greenest, and only glance at the green claims or read them once you’re home, their presence could make you feel that bit more satisfied with your purchase and likely to buy it again.
Green claims are subject to the Trade Practices Act, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is able to take action against dodgy claims. Australia also has a voluntary standard for green claims, AS 14021, which is designed to foster consumer confidence.
Unfortunately, not all green claims can be relied upon. North American marketing firm TerraChoice has defined 'six sins' of greenwash:
- giving no proof
- hiding environmental tradeoffs
- simply being the lesser of two evils
CHOICE's Green Watch investigation
We carried out a green claims investigation at some representative supermarkets. Our Green Watch team picked up and read the labels on non-food items in three stores from different chains in Sydney in January and March 2008.
Included were items like A4 paper, plastic bags, laundry detergents, surface cleaners, insect sprays and toilet paper. We didn’t look at food, because CHOICE deals with the ins and outs of claims like organic and free range in other articles.
On 185 items that had green claims, we found 637 claims — that’s an average of over three each. Some of these repeated the same or a similar claim, for example on the front and back.
There are a lot of green claims in the cleaning aisle of the supermarket, on things like laundry detergents and cleaning sprays. We found one all-purpose cleaning spray with 19 claims — the most on a single item. We didn’t spot many green claims beyond 'natural' and 'pure' on personal care products like shampoo. Yet in the toilet paper aisle, it’s hard to find items without green claims.
So are these green claims any good?
We weren’t able to check every claim. But unfortunately, it’s easy to spot Australian examples of each of the six sins identified by TerraChoice. These are discussed in detail in the following page (Six greenwash sins).