Beware of the Deadly Sins of Greenwashing
Our desire to make modern life easier, healthier and more comfortable has been accelerating at an exponential rate for decades, trying to feed our insatiable desire for pristine and hygienically safe surfaces as well as clean and fragrant clothes. But, the pursuit of this standard has meant that modern lifestyles need the resources of several planets to maintain them using today’s methods and technologies.
Some cleaning products in the retail world have been promoted using terms such as ‘non-toxic’ and ‘earth-friendly’ by companies attempting to tailor their products and packaging to consumer demand for chemical cleaning products that are supposedly ‘healthier’ for people and the environment – are we beginning to paint a picture?
We will discuss this subject in more detail in the final part of this series; for now, it is sufficient to note that some chemical providers in the professional arena believe that having some kind of eco-label certification and a prominent eco-label seal printed on their cleaning products will set them apart from competitors and win over professional buyers who need to decide, which cleaning chemicals to buy for their company’s use.
We now come to the subject of ‘Greenwashing’, so what is it?
The definition given by US-based TerraChoice is, “Green-wash – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” Typically, this refers to labelling or marketing products with ‘green claims’ and details the Seven Sins of Eco-Labelling:
1.The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off
2.The Sin of No Proof
3.The Sin of Vagueness
4.The Sin of Worshiping False Labels
5.The Sin of Irrelevance
6.The Sin of Lesser of Two Evil
7.The Sin of Fibbing
Being aware of these ‘sins’ can help the purchasing manager decipher cleaning product claims better and help to pinpoint companies and products that are guilty of ‘greenwashing’. TerraChoice’s research showed that the most common greenwashing sin, at 77.4%, is Vagueness and the most common terms associated with the Sin of Vagueness are:
• environmentally friendly;
• earth-friendly, and
• environmentally safe.
An article in the UK Independent newspaper outlined the findings of a consumer group that conducted an investigation into claims of greenwashing by UK retail companies where almost half of them made claims that seemed not to be justified.
Making truthful & unbiased claims
Environmental claims MUST convey meaningful benefits and should be fair. In the professional cleaning product sector where some products are packaged in a way that suggests that they are ‘greener’, there can often be an implied favourable comparison with other competitor products that do not present themselves in such a way – which is not fair and not good for unbiased assessment by the professional buyer.
So, two reputable business & industry custodians make it very clear to companies who market the said ‘green’ chemicals
The UK Advertising Code says that for comparative claims such as ‘greener’ to be justified, the product should provide ‘a total environmental benefit over that of ……. competitor products and the basis of the comparison is clear.”
The UK government Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) guidance says that ‘it should be clear for an average consumer whether the claim covers the complete offering, or only one of the components, or the packaging’.
For cleaning products, which are used with other resources including energy and equipment to perform a cleaning process, a good environmental claim should avoid giving the impression that the sustainability of the whole cleaning process has been improved unless that has been assessed and substantiated. So, present the claim clearly, truthfully and accurately.
The DEFRA guidance recommends being specific and avoiding vague and undefined terms like ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘eco’ or ‘better for the environment’. This is a way to avoid the pitfall of unfair implied comparisons, which can easily arise in the cleaning products sector.
Despite this guidance, a typical piece of marketing-speak, taken from two well-known UK chemical manufacturers, shows how ambiguous, unsupported claims can conjure up ‘cool eco-messages’ but fall foul of genuine substantiated claims:
Example 1: “Environmentally friendly products with no compromise on performance. Following years of extensive research the (Sic. environmental cleaning range) has been formulated to minimise the impact of each product on the environment, whilst not compromising on quality or performance. Utilising raw materials from renewable resources, they contain no unnecessary perfumes or dyes and are fully biodegradable. In addition, all bottles, plastic labels and triggers are recyclable.”
Example 2: “What makes (Sic. our range) environmentally friendly and safe? Natural ingredients have been used wherever possible in the manufacture of the finished products for (the range), which haven’t been tested on animals either. Accredited with ISO 14001, a coveted environmental management standard, we are delighted to be the brand behind a range of chemical products which have such minimal impact on our environment… we are confident that you will find all our green products both effective and efficient, whilst still being kind to the environment. No harmful solvents included; No animal testing on the finished product; No strong acids; No caustic ingredients; Minimal impact on the environment; Sugar based and natural ingredients wherever possible.”
These descriptions, whilst may attract interest from the eco-buyer, are inaccurate and misleading and in many instances stating what other ‘non-eco’ label manufacturers are doing anyway with ‘traditional’ products. The advice is quite clear in that manufacturers “should ensure any labels, symbols or pictures are clear and relevant with images bearing relevance to the product business activity or environmental impact concerned in the claim”. Imagery of remote Nordic forests, planet earth or endangered animals can imply a sweeping environmental benefit or contribute to an environmental claim. Images that might inappropriately imply an environmental benefit, which cannot be justified, should not be used.
The key, as the guidance states, is not to inappropriately imply a link between the claim and the image if there is none. With cleaning chemicals, it is fairly widespread to use images involving natural scenes like pine trees or flower meadows on pine-oil based or floral scented products. However, these images are relevant to key characteristics of the product and should not automatically be construed as implying an environmental benefit as soon as an environmental claim is made.
Who is the greenest of them all?
An example of how ‘hollow’ the green chemical argument can be can be illustrated when a few years ago an Arpal distributor sales manager advised us that we HAD to have a green range like another competitor, and that we ‘were missing a trick’. When we pointed out that the chemical range that they were referring to was mostly based on a ready-to-use range, and could therefore NOT in any way be classified as ‘green’, they replied, that “it doesn’t matter, my customers want a green range of chemicals and these products say it on the label – yours do not.”
It was then that we realised that the distributor had created a false point of difference by suggesting (by implication) that our industry standard cleaning products caused more harm to the environment than this ecological ‘Prom Queen’ brand. The good news is that today, on closer inspection, purchasing managers can quickly ascertain the differences, if any exist at all.
It is important to remember that the toxicity of cleaning chemical ingredients, whether in relation to aquatic life or to people, is not a property that some substances have and others not. In simple terms, everything is toxic, given a high enough dose. It is evident that certain substances are much more toxic than others – i.e.: they cause harm at much lower dose levels, but what matters most is whether the dose is high enough to cause harm, not the presence of the ingredient in itself.
Reputable international chemical manufacturers have a legal responsibility to ensure their products are safe for people and the environment when used according to the instructions. Provided these conditions are met there should be no impact arising from their hazards during normal use. It should not be left to the business consumer having to ask themselves – who is the greenest/safest of them all?
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