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Author: Melissa Baird - Sustainability Strategist Ogilvy Earth

( Article Type: Explanation )

Greenwash is not a new concept. The term emerged from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and it entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 1999.
Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. As more and more consumers demand ‘green’ or rather sustainable brands the number of greenwash incidents has increased dramatically. In America alone one report found 98% of all green claims made in 2009 guilty of one or more of the ‘Seven Sins of Greenwashing’ and reported that 64% of Americans no longer trust sustainability related marketing claims. In South Africa the trend has been very similar. As the consumer becomes more environmentally and socially brand sensitive, the number of brands making ‘green’ claims about their brands has increased tenfold. The majority of these claims end up being more fiction and a lot less about fact.

The seven sins of green washing

Sin of the Hidden Trade-off
A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. In South Africa we see a lot of claims about organisations going ‘green’ when they announce their tree planting initiatives. What we need to know further however is what actual changes are made in a company’s full impact strategy; for example their water, waste and energy management as well as the sourcing of raw materials for production. How renewable and sustainable are the sources required to make their products overall? These questions need to be answered before the claim of going ‘green’ can be unilaterally applied.

Sin of No Proof
This is an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence. Sin of Vagueness A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Factory farmed animals could still be considered ‘all natural’ but there is nothing ‘green’ about the farming conditions.

Sin of Worshipping False Labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.

Sin of Irrelevance
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant, or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
A claim that may be true within the product category, but one that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might cars and 4x4’s that claim to be fuel-efficient.

Sin of Fibbing Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.(Information adapted from TerraChoice. ‘The Seven Sins of Greenwashing,’ 2009. Web. The Ogilvyearth sustainability survey conducted in 2011 shows how greenwashing has affected the mindset of South African consumers.

Green’ claims associated with products, goods and

services are just another money spinner

Strongly Agree 6% Agree 30.6%
Neutral 38.2%
Disagree 21.9%
Strongly Disagree 3.4%

A company or brand’s ‘green’ credentials can

be trusted

Strongly Agree 3.8%
Agree 14.5%
Neutral 40.7%
Disagree 35.5%
Strongly Disagree 5.4%

Whilst a large proportion of respondents are certain that green credentials cannot be trusted as they are perceived as just another money spinner, the amount of respondents who answered ‘neutral’ to these two questions indicates that a larger portion of respondents are unsure. They do not know who and what to trust anymore. This uncertainty is a direct result of greenwashing.

Associated Organisations:

Eco Standard South Africa