Beware the great 'greenwashing' con, experts warn

Eco-conscious customers who flock to one Washington store say they have chosen the environmentally friendly living shop because they know they are in little danger of being "greenwashed."

"I can give you a ton of words that mean absolutely, positively nothing," said Daniel Velez, owner of Greater Goods, where the shelves are stocked only after careful, painstaking research.

"The word natural. The word earth-friendly. It means nothing since it's not legally defined. Biodegradable, except in California, doesn't actually carry any weight of law."

Around the world, there are few legal requirements companies must adhere to when marketing products as green or sustainable. As increasingly eco-conscious consumers are faced with more and more choices, experts warn that marketing strategies dubbed "greenwashing" could be leading them astray.

"Today it suffices to just slap some green paint on a product to call it green," Bernard Caron, director of marketing for the Belgian company Ecover, told AFP.

Ecover, a long-time international leader in ecologically safe cleaning products, has rejected the European Commission's "Ecolabel" as the standards set by the voluntary environmental certification were not high enough.

Offering green options can be a lucrative endeavor. According to a 2008 study by GfK Roper Consulting and Yale University, half of respondents reported they would definitely or probably pay 15 percent more for eco-friendly laundry detergent or cars.

"Many American consumers, even in the face of economic uncertainty, express a willingness to pay more for environmentally friendly products," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale Project on Climate Change, in a statement.

Independent voluntary labels are increasingly filling the void left by a lack of enforceable government regulations on green marketing, said David Wigder, vice president of RecycleBank, an international rewards program that encourages green living.

But consumers often do not understand the implications of the certifications that do exist, he said.

"It's hard to describe green versus greener behavior," Wigder told AFP, explaining that many labels only apply to a certain step in the lifecycle of a product.

For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star efficiency rating for household appliances does not take into account the environmental impacts of manufacturing or disposal of an appliance.

Often companies make environmental claims without providing any publicly available proof, which makes navigating the growing assortment of "green" options tricky, said Scott Case, vice president of Terra Choice.

Terra Choice, an environmental marketing firm, has identified "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing" in a report that cautions against marketing tactics that leverage consumers' desire to factor the environment into their shopping choices.

"Earth friendly garbage bags!" Case exclaimed on a recent tour of a Washington supermarket.

"The bag itself might be recyclable, but once you fill it with garbage, garbage trucks haul it away to a landfill and incinerate it. This stuff's not ever going to get recycled."

In the toilet tissue aisle, Case reached for Scott Naturals toilet paper, saying there was no third party verification to back up a claim that the product was made from at least 40 percent recycled materials.

The nationally distributed household paper products manufacturer began selling its eco-option almost a year ago, and told AFP that recycling standards are strictly monitored internally.

Developing a line of Scott products sporting the slogan "Green Done Right" was "an opportunity for the brand to expand in the marketplace," said brand manager Aric Melzl.

According to Joey Mooring, a spokesperson for parent-company Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer also takes various behind-the-scenes measures such as using post-consumer recycled plastic in its packaging.

Experts say every single purchase has hidden environmental costs, whether it be in the ingredients, manufacturing, or disposal of the product.

The best thing consumers can do is read the fine print, and try to decipher the specifics behind a product's "green" label.

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