How firms try to "greenwash" their reputations -- and charge more: Internet Scambusters #980
Greenwashing is a bit like whitewashing -- covering up your behavior to appear like a good ol' friend of the consumer.
It's a tactic used by some organizations to try to appear more eco-friendly than they really are and, sometimes, to get shoppers to pay more.
In this week's issue, we explain how greenwashing works and how you can spot it before you dip into your wallet.
Let's get started…
Are You Paying for Phony "Greenwashed" Products?
Greenwashing is a new take on fake news. It happens when businesses and other organizations make false or misleading claims about being eco-friendly.
And you may be paying for it.
By being or saying they're environmentally aware, they may increase their prices by suggesting it costs them more to go green, whether in their products or their corporate attitude toward sustainability.
When we wrote about green scams a few years ago, we predicted a surge, and that seems to be exactly what's happened.
Greenwashing is defined by Investopedia as "an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly."
They're aiming at you if you're the type of consumer who cares about ecologically sound products, preferring to do business with firms whose ideals you share.
Joel Makower, founder of the GreenBiz Group, said recently that greenwashing, a term that's been around for years, is "back with a vengeance."
"Just as there are inaccurate, dishonest or misleading media stories worthy of the 'fake news' moniker, there are corporate sustainability claims that aren't as significant or impactful as they're made out to be," he says.
"There's no shortage of vague and misleading green marketing claims and a few that are outright misleading. Those companies are worthy of being named and shamed."
Another environmental group has done just that. Earth.org lists 10 firms last month, including banks, furniture retailers and car makers, that it accuses of greenwashing. You can read the names and their claims here: 10 Companies and Corporations Called Out for Greenwashing.
"(G)reenwashing is a harmful and deceitful way of advertising that a company is greener than it is and when it happens, we need to call it out so the company is forced to account for their actions," says environmental watchdog Earth.org.
Six Greenwashing Tricks
A study several years ago by eco-marketing group TerraChoice identified six ways that companies greenwash:
- Hidden trade-offs where a producer promotes a single eco benefit that was achieved by ignoring other environmental concerns.
- Claims that simply can't be proved. For example, saying that a product has not been tested on animals but providing no supporting evidence.
- Vagueness -- confusing, misleading claims such as "chemical-free." Ultimately, everything, even plants created by nature, is made of chemicals! Or using words like "made from recycled products" without saying how much is actually reused.
- Irrelevance -- claims that may be true but don't have much meaning. For example, claiming a product is free of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is irrelevant since CFCs are banned globally.
- "Lesser of two evils" -- promoting the eco-friendliness of one aspect of a product, while ignoring another; for instance, so-called green herbicides or organic tobaccos.
- Telling lies! Yes, some firms have been caught out doing just that, especially making claims to be certified by organizations like USDA, Energy Star, or official testing and quality control labs.
What You Can Do
One problem is that some organizations' attempts to go green can be derailed by one simple misstatement or oversight. They still may be doing better than many of their peers.
That makes it a challenge for us consumers. What can we do to avoid being duped?
First, you can look out for evidence of the sort of behaviors listed above.
It's important to be skeptical of "green" claims, especially on labeling of products and especially if those products cost more than rivals that don't make such claims.
Likewise, as we argued in our previous report (see Seven Common Green Scam Types and Seven Tips on Avoiding Them) phrases like "eco-friendly," "natural," and "safe for the environment" should be taken with a pinch of sale until you know they're true.
Even a claim by one meat producer that its products were "antibiotic-free" turned out to be untrue.
We're not suggesting all claims are meaningless. Most "certified" products are indeed certified. But make sure you get the facts.
You only have to do the research for each product one time. Read the label to see if it backs up the claims. Or if it's a non-physical product like a mutual fund, read the supporting documentation carefully.
As Investopedia's report says: "Genuinely green products back up their claims with facts and details."
Beware of "recyclable" claims. Just because a product can be recycled doesn't mean it will be. For example, many waste disposal organizations don't accept certain "recyclable" items simply because no one wants to repurpose them. Check with your local garbage collector.
Without taking sides on controversial issues like climate change, all of us owe Planet Earth the respect of being green where possible in our consumer habits. Companies that genuinely try to support this deserve success, but, as Mother Nature always shows us, there are always bad apples!
Alert of the Week
As we're in the season of hurricanes, flooding, and other adverse weather, it's timely to be alert to the scams that always follow in their wake.
That means being on your guard against crooked contractors, bogus fundraisers, and the deadly flood-damaged car scam.
These vehicles turn up all over North America, often with their history cleverly disguised.
Check out our earlier issue to learn how to spot these damaged autos: Scammers Dump Flooded Cars on Unsuspecting Buyers.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has just issued a useful fact sheet on storm scams: Beware of Fraud and Scam Artists.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!