Avoiding greenwash: what to look for
We need better regulation of green claims, but in the meantime here's what you can look for to minimise your risk of being greenwashed:
- No distractions: It's great if the packet is recyclable or biodegradable, but it's not the main point. Ignore green pictures and unofficial logos and think about the impact of the product itself.
- Specific and precise: Look for precise claims that explain and give evidence. For example, high percentages and guaranteed minimums of post-consumer recycled content.
- Full ingredients: Listing of all ingredients in plain English, not just the active ingredients required by law. Plain English is notably lacking in the ingredients labelling of many cleaners and personal care products.
- Whole lifecycle: Look for evidence that the whole life of the product is handled with care, not just one part of it. Emphasis on one technical aspect (such as 'biodegradable') might be masking poor environmental performance in other areas.
- Third-party certified: Look for adherence to relevant Australian or ISO standards (International Standards Organisation) or other recognised schemes. For example, certification to ISO 14001 is about ongoing improvement to the company's environmental management processes although it doesn't guarantee the product has a low environmental impact.
- Helpful contact info: Be suspicious if there's no robust evidence of the green claim on the pack and no easy way to obtain it when you get home. Don't support a manufacturer that doesn't want you to be able to find out more about them.
Why make green claims?
Products may make claims 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 make you more likely to buy it again.
Who's regulating this?
Environmental claims are subject to the Competition and Consumer 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.
Seven sins of greenwash
Unfortunately, not all green claims can be believed. North American marketing firm TerraChoice has defined 'seven sins' of greenwash:
- Giving no proof
- False certification labels
- Hiding environmental trade offs
- Simply being the lesser of two evils, and
Vague 'greenwash' terms
Green claims that could be described as 'vague' include:
- Environmentally, such as, environmentally friendly
It's also pretty vague to use any of the following terms without any supporting evidence:
- Enviro care
- Saving the environment
- Chemical free (this sounds silly when you consider even water is a chemical!)
More useful, specific claims should contain reliable information on how much of the product is made from renewable ingredients and should provide evidence that they've been harvested sustainably. Even when a claim looks specific and accurate, it can still be confusing and it's easy to get the wrong first impression. For example, claims such as "up to 40% recycled plastic" might sound great, but don't actually guarantee any recycled content.
Be wary of catchy claims such as:
- Not tested on animals
- Sustainable forestry
Animal testing statements don't have to be certified, and some give little or no detail of what they really mean. "Product not tested on animals" sounds helpful, but individual ingredients in the product might still have been tested on animals.
And "not tested" doesn't mean "no animal ingredients", so if that's an issue for you, be sure to read the label thoroughly. If animal rights are important to you, make sure the products you buy have been properly certified.
"Sustainable" is a big claim – and it needs to be backed up. For a practice to be sustainable it has to be able to be sustained indefinitely. Lessening one environmental impact doesn't make a product sustainable. The word is often seen on paper products.
For example: "Our fibre supplies are from plantations and sustainably-managed forests that meet appropriate forestry codes."
Without specific proof – information about which forestry codes are met, or what "not tested on animals" really means – these claims should be taken with a grain of salt.
Fibs and false impressions
These can include such statements as:
- Certified environmental claim
- Good environmental management
It's illegal for a business to make a false representation about the standard, quality, value, composition or history of a product. Environmental claims should relate to real environmental benefits, and shouldn't overstate them. For example, they mustn't claim to be certified when they're not.
According to TerraChoice's study, outright lying isn't common, but bending the truth is. For example a popular sin among manufacturers is the incorrect use of the Energy Star certification logo.
The term "recyclable", along with the logo, can also be misleading as facilities might not exist to do the recycling, or the product might not even be recyclable.
Some products claim to be recyclable, but have so many different materials in them that they won't be. For example, razors would contaminate the recycling process if the paper inserts, foil decoration and moulded plastic stand were left inside the packet – an easy mistake to make.
False certification systems
This sin has developed over the years as companies have started to label packaging with logos that look like a third-party certification, but that in actual fact aren't. Back in 2007 Woolworths found itself in hot water for its "sustainable forest fibre" claim on its Select range of paper products (napkins, toilet paper and kitchen towels).
It was a claim of exemplary environmental performance that couldn't be verified by consumers. Evidence available to the consumer was an official-looking logo and environmental management system (ISO 14001) certification.
Yet ISO 4001 certification is about ongoing improvements to the management process, rather than guaranteeing a high level of environmental performance or sustainable forestry.
Even after a thorough investigation, the ACCC could not form a conclusion about the Select claims. The remedy, to sticker over the claims and eventually remove them altogether, might have been a belated win for honesty in marketing, but not the environment.
Hidden trade offs
This can include claims that a product is:
Green claims about single environmental issues might be technically correct, but can be a trade off for not telling the full or important side of the story.
"Degradable" is a term seen on some plastic bags. There's a difference between this, which means a product simply breaks into smaller pieces, and biodegradable, where living organisms can decompose it.
"Biodegradable" can be misleading if the product takes a very long time to biodegrade or requires quite specific conditions. What's more, it may not be of any real benefit to the environment if the breakdown process proves toxic.
Look for "readily biodegradable", but be aware that the Australian standard for surfactants (soap agents in cleaning products), AS4351, doesn't require the entire product to degrade, just the soapy bit, which is only a small part of the product.
Nor is the standard concerned about the safety of by-products when it does degrade.
Lesser of two evils
If a product implies that it's greener than other products, the basis for the comparison really should be explained. These claims can sometimes be talking about the lesser of two evils, when in fact there's a third, even greener option available.
For example: "Elemental chlorine free" (sometimes written as ECF) is seen on things like paper products and nappies. It's better for the environment than regular chlorine bleaching, but it's really the lesser of two evils, because chlorine is still involved. There are products on the market that claim instead to be "totally chlorine free" (written as TCF) or unbleached.
There are plenty of green icons and official-looking logos that are made-up and irrelevant. There are also products that sponsor or make donations to causes like zoos and drought relief. Some of these connections can be weak, so don't let them exploit your concern for the environment.
Claims like "Made from a renewable forest resource", which can be found on products like toilet paper don't help you decide which is the greenest toilet paper. All plants and trees are renewable.
CFCs were banned from use in aerosol spray cans long ago, so claiming "CFC-free" is irrelevant. Also, the removal of CFCs as a propellant doesn't mean the entire threat to the ozone layer has been removed, just reduced. Given this, common claims that a product is "ozone friendly", "ozone safe" and "okay to spray" seem to us to be exaggerated.
All detergents have to meet the Australian standard for biodegradability, so the claim "biodegradable" is irrelevant unless the product can demonstrate it goes beyond the requirements.