Moving Beyond Greenwashing to
Create Authentic Eco-Success
FILE: SCAN OF THE ARTICLE AS PUBLISHED
- (Click here if you need a PDF
- by Patricia Dines
- August 2010
NorthBay biz magazine
Moving beyond greenwashing to create authentic
EcoGirl Patricia Dines helps NorthBay biz
readers see beyond enticing green façades to
uncover the products and approaches that support true
(c) Copyright Patricia Dines, 2010.
All rights reserved.
- Everywhere we turn, it seems we're bombarded with ads for
green products, services, political candidates, ballot measures
and more. How on earth can we identify the ones we want to support
while dodging the greenwashers -- those coated only with a
superficial green veneer to coax us out of our hard-earned money
and votes? More importantly, how do we accurately describe our own
company's level of green without overstating it and risking the
wrath of the green-savvy marketplace?
- These concerns quickly lead to one vital but daunting
question: What does "green" actually mean? Sure, we all have a
sense that it implies walking lightly on the earth. But when we
look for specifics, we hear a baffling variety of passionately
stated opinions and definitions, ranging from simple actions that
seem too small to make a difference to impossible standards that
surely few could meet.
- So, to help clear up the confusion, we decided to distill what
you need to know to steer around the greenwashing hazards and take
actions that meaningfully contribute to the eco-changes our
culture so urgently needs to make.
- Recognizing greenwashing's
- It's not just our imagination that green claims have
increased. A study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found
that eco-ads almost tripled between 2006 and 2008, and the average
number of green-labeled products per store nearly doubled between
2007 and 2008.
- This increased attention reflects the good news of people's
growing desire to "do the right thing." According to a 2007 survey
by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), 58 percent of Americans
are more likely to buy products and services from a company that's
mindful of its impact on the environment and society than from one
that isn't. This is a compelling reason for companies to mention
green among their products' benefits.
- However, while this trend gives the environmental good guys
long-deserved attention for their positive offerings, it also
attracts the wannabes who hop on the bandwagon solely for its
- Janet Pomeroy, founder and president of San Francisco's green
marketing firm The goodMix (www.thegoodmix.com), says,
"Some companies assume they can just throw a green sticker on
anything and say, 'I'm green' -- with no proof, no certification,
no one to check them on it."
- For instance, Pomeroy remembers a Chevy Tahoe TV ad that she
felt "was complete greenwashing. I mean, just because the SUV can
drive around in the mountains doesn't mean it's green," she
observes with a laugh.
- Some of greenwashing's various faces are described in
TerraChoice's 2009 report "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing."
(www.sinsofgreenwashing.com) Transgressions identified
include: being vague, making irrelevant claims, emphasizing one
eco-aspect of a product while ignoring much more harmful ones,
presenting false or misleading certification, and overtly lying
about the facts.
- Other ways that companies can greenwash, notes the nonprofit
Greenpeace (www.stopgreenwash.org), are by portraying baby
steps as giant strides, exaggerating an environmental achievement
to deflect attention from its environmental problems, bragging
about court-ordered actions as if they were voluntary expressions
of corporate values, and touting a green image while company
lobbyists work tirelessly in Washington, D.C., "to gut
- For more specific greenwashing examples, Pomeroy suggests
- The costs of
- The result of this frequent dissonance between green image and
reality, according to NMI's 2007 report, is that 70 percent of
American consumers think companies aren't always genuine when
claiming to help the environment and society. This increased
skepticism can dilute the value of the word "green," undermining
its usefulness for identifying effective eco-actions, and
decreasing public participation in earth-healing activities.
- False claims can also inaccurately persuade customers that
they've made a contribution when their action actually had little
effect. Plus, it makes it harder to identify the authentic
offerings, penalizing rather than rewarding those who are doing it
- Even worse, all this green noise and misinformation can
undermine the environmental movement's momentum at a time when
it's essential that we all participate in constructive and
meaningful ways. Thus, Pomeroy observes, "our culture becomes less
receptive, more cynical, more likely to think this is all
environmental hooey and not believe things like climate change --
which is not what we need right now."
- Greenwashing also often harms the company making the claims.
Pomeroy cautions that the threat of being labeled a greenwasher
"is a really big deal," especially in this era of social media.
"You're going to lose credibility and, consequently, market
share." Other risks include diminished employee satisfaction and
retention rates, and even legal trouble.
- On the flip side of the equation, Pomeroy notices that the
marketplace confusion can make some companies reluctant to mention
their green features, "because they don't want people to say, 'Oh,
you didn't raise the bar high enough.'"
- Buying green
- The first place we usually face greenwashing is when we're
purchasing products and services, so here are some essential tips
for being a smart green consumer, both individually and as a
- Learn the definitions of the most common
eco-words to understand what they do and don't mean. Recognize
that some words, such as "organic," have strong legal definitions,
while others, such as "green" and "sustainable," have no
definition in law and thus mean different things to different
people. Additionally, the credibility of private certifiers varies
widely. Identify the criteria and standards that are most
important to you and your industry. A great source for
understanding eco-labels is
- Recognize that no company or product in our modern
world is completely ecological, because our culture is so
complex and interwoven. Instead, items are just more or less
green, based on specific measures. Pomeroy muses, "It's more
accurate to be called a 'greener' company than a green company,
since any large use of resources has an impact on the
- Choose products and services that articulate, and
offer evidence for, specific green criteria. Ken Kurtzig,
founder and CEO of Marin's iReuse (www.ireuse.com), a
sustainability consulting firm, says, "It's a business'
responsibility to be honest and accurate in its green claims. But
when a company makes vague statements like, 'We're super green,'
then we, as consumers, need to demand more details -- ask them why
- Look below the surface. Don't just accept
unsupported vagaries such as a nature scene on a label or the word
"earth" in a brand name. Avoid offerings that don't clarify
specifics, and choose those that best inform you of their
- Go beyond buying replacement green products to
greening your activities. For example, you might start by
buying recycled paper towels, but later choose to be even more
earth-nurturing by shifting from disposable to reusable towels,
thus reducing the related production and disposal impacts.
- Similarly, while it's great to seek green features if you're
already building a new office or buying a new company car, the
greener choice is usually to improve the efficiency of an existing
building or reduce the miles traveled in your current vehicle,
thus more fully leveraging the eco-costs that have already been
- Authentically marketing
- The other crucial time for businesses to sidestep greenwashing
is in their own marketing. Certainly, there are potential
advantages to joining the green trend, including matching
competitors' offerings, attracting new customers, and expanding
into new markets.
- However, to reap those benefits and avoid greenwashing's
pitfalls, it's vital to be authentic and transparent when talking
about green features. Tell the truth and make specific,
meaningful, honest claims. Then back them up with facts and
evidence, including third-party certification when possible. Most
importantly, walk your talk throughout your company. Don't just
have green be something you say; have it be something you
- Your key steps to a truly
- Create a clear statement of your company's green
mission, even if it's just for internal use. This helps you
clarify your motivations, inspire your staff, and keep your
bearings amidst the many theories and action options that you'll
- Determine your priority criteria and current status
on each one. There's a wide range of ways a company can be
green, so identify your own priority metrics, and see where you
stand on each.
- Kurtzig recommends starting with your business' biggest
ecological impacts: "Don't waste your time on a bunch of stuff
that won't contribute significantly to your overall impact."
Prioritizing helps increase your odds of early success, which is
essential for receiving continued support for your project.
- Most businesses, especially smaller ones, can often identify
their largest impacts simply by brainstorming with a whiteboard
and a copy of their budget, he advises. Medium and large
businesses probably need a more organized program, perhaps with
assistance from a sustainability consultant.
- Kurtzig also emphasizes the importance of simultaneously
assessing environmental, financial, and social impacts. Using this
"triple bottom line" helps ensure that your actions provide a net
positive benefit for both your organization and the community. For
example, he says, companies often want to start greening by
putting solar on their roofs, expecting it to save money and be
attractive to customers. However, Kurtzig demonstrates that
improving building efficiency should come first, for both
financial and ecological reasons. (See "Solar Isn't the Answer,"
Green Scene, June 2010.)
- Gather essential information from experts and
stakeholders. A wide variety of resources is available to
assist you in creating and implementing your plan, including
financial incentive programs to help with funding. Also talk with
your employees, customers, investors, board and so forth, about
what you're considering, and invite their input. This will help
you understand their values and priorities, receive helpful ideas,
refine your approach, and create a sense of inclusion in your
- Set specific targets and create structures for
meeting them. Integrate your eco-objectives into your current
organizational goals and structures. Designate a person or group
as responsible for leading the project. Explore ways to involve
employees, such as through cross-departmental green teams,
employee education programs, and annual performance reviews.
Consider getting third-party certification from a reputable
program to increase credibility while simplifying logistics and
marketing. Also confirm that your legislative activities are
consistent with your claims.
- As you produce meaningful results, convey the
specifics in your public communications. Be sure that your
ads, packaging, websites, menus and such avoid vague green terms
and instead describe the specific criteria that you meet and their
particular benefits to the earth. Consider which aspects will be
most compelling for your target audience. Understand eco-word
definitions to use them accurately. Learn the laws regarding green
claims by reviewing the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green
Guides at www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm. Teach
employees how to talk about green features appropriately, so they
don't misrepresent your organization and damage your credibility.
Educate customers about what your claims mean to help them
appreciate your efforts.
- Build on your success. Green is not a static
end-state, but an ongoing process of improvement. Continue setting
goals and tracking results. Look for ways to encourage green
values throughout your company's culture. Aim to be committed, not
perfect, learning from your experiences and having fun along the
way. Pomeroy finds that, once folks start making even simple
changes, they want to keep doing more "because it feels good and
they start getting excited about it."
- Progressing from green
beginner to pioneering leader
- While each business has its own green style and journey, many
companies start by trimming energy and water use and reducing
waste, observes Kurtzig, because these usually also cut costs.
Other areas first targeted might include high travel expenses (by
finding less-intensive alternatives), high paper use (by shifting
to a computer-based document sharing system), and toxic materials
use (to lower the risks to workers and relieve regulatory
- Once a company has some traction on these elements, the next
stage for many is to expand beyond their onsite operations to
assess and reduce the lifecycle impacts of their business -- from
the first extraction of each material they use to their own
products' final fate. Through this exploration, companies can
encourage positive change in their suppliers, more fully use the
resources embedded in their products, and reduce total waste.
- The third stage that some businesses get to in their greening
process is even more exciting: They start seeing their mission and
operations through green eyes and, from this, deeply rethink and
restructure how their company serves customers, workers, the
planet, and the bottom line.
- The classic example of this visionary corporate rethinking is
the Atlanta-based carpetmaker Interface, Inc.
(www.interfaceglobal.com) In 1994, founder and Chairman Ray
Anderson was being prodded by customers to offer eco-options, so
he read Paul Hawken's seminal book, The Ecology of
Commerce. He experienced what he calls a "spear in the chest"
moment, realizing both the significant harm that businesses do to
the planet, and the necessity and opportunity for companies to
lead us in a new direction.
- So he challenged his staff to start creating ways to shift the
company from harming the earth to restoring it. By comprehensively
redesigning the company's operations and products across the
board, Interface has since cut its fossil fuel use 45 percent,
trimmed greenhouse gas tonnage 82 percent, and reduced water use
in its carpet tile business by 75 percent. It's diverted 148
million pounds of carpet from landfills and obtains 27 percent of
its energy from renewable sources, with a target of 100 percent.
The company's next goal is eliminating all of its negative
eco-impacts by 2020.
- Interface's efforts have been financially beneficial as well.
Through its eco-improvements and innovative new products, the
company has saved more than $336 million since 1995 -- and doubled
its profits. Fortune magazine named this now $1 billion
corporation one of the "Most Admired Companies in America." In
2009, Interface was again voted by eco-experts as the company with
the highest commitment to sustainability. Anderson concludes that
being green "doesn't cost, it pays" -- in customer loyalty,
employee enthusiasm, and cold hard cash.
- Another pioneering eco-leader, says Pomeroy, is Rent a Green
Box (www.rentagreenbox.com) in Southern California. This
"zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle" company turns waste plastic from
landfills into reusable moving boxes that are designed to last for
400 uses, compared to the one or two uses we get from cardboard
moving boxes. The company rents its boxes to individuals and
businesses by the week, delivering them in trucks that run on
"waste vegetable oil and biofuel." It also offers innovative
recycled packing materials.
- The company's website describes its service as "cheaper,
faster, and easier" than using cardboard boxes, because its
containers are stronger, more durable, easier to grab and stack,
and don't need to be taped. When a box wears out, the company
grinds it up to make a new one. Rent a Green Box reports that its
business is "growing like a green weed." It's actively seeking
franchisees in other regions.
- These examples show the excitement and bottom line results
that a deep green vision can bring. They also demonstrate the
importance of "getting it right" in other areas of your business,
including developing a smart strategy, knowing and serving your
market, offering quality products and customer service,
constructively engaging employees, and keeping your finances
- Creating a Greener
- Pomeroy believes that "every company has a chance to be
leading this in some way." She also feels that it's crucial for
businesses to do that, "because some of the biggest problems we
have right now have to do with our environmental situation. I
mean, if we don't have the resources, we're not going to be making
anything. If we have polluted air, we're not going to be
able to live. If we don't have an environment, we're not going to
have businesses. And if we don't support environmental initiatives
and legislation, we're going to live in a very different world.
It's coming down to survival issues."
Her conclusion is that, "you have to step up and say, 'I have a
company that's going to change the way we relate to the
environment, and here's how we're going to do it.' And you have to
be honest about it, create the benchmarks and be authentic about
where you are in the journey. That's leadership."
Companies that make this bold choice are doing more than making
money, creating business opportunities, serving customers, and
contributing to a better future. They're also helping shape our
evolving collaborative understanding of what green really
- Patricia Dines has been a professional writer and public
speaker for 25 years, and has specialized in environmental topics
for the past 15 years. She consults with businesses, is the author
of the syndicated "Ask EcoGirl" column, and has written a wide
variety of helpful eco-books, newsletters, articles, and more. For
more information, see www.patriciadines.info or call (707)
- The Bay Area Green Business Program
(www.greenbiz.ca.gov) provides free eco-checklists as well
as the option of official recognition.
- The Green Business Guide, by Glenn
Bachman (2009), walks readers through the specific steps for
greening a company. "A one-stop resource for businesses of all
shapes and sizes to implement eco-friendly policies, programs, and
- The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken
(1993), has inspired many with its profound vision of an
ecologically sustainable economy.
- Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken, Amory
Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1999), describes what capitalism can
look like when natural and human resources are valued equally with
- B corporation (www.bcorporation.net) is a
new kind of corporate structure designed to encourage success in
the triple bottom line of financial, ecological and social
"Regardless of whether a business is an Internet retailer in
California or a tool-and-die shop in Cleveland or a software company
in India, the reconciliation of the relationship between human -- in
this case, business -- and living systems will dominate the
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural
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