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March 01, 2009

Eco-friend or foe: “green” products that aren’t

The black and white of ‘greenwashing’

L. Sara Bysterveld

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“Going green”—the very name of this column—is just one in a chorus of “green” media and marketing messages.

All around us ads, packaging and media sources sing out reasons and methods to green your yard, home, bath, and ride to the point where the colour has become a verb.

But this very chorus is host to a worrisome bedfellow, and its name, greenwashing.

Greenwashing follows in the footsteps of whitewashing, which is, according to the Oxford, dictionary “a deliberate concealment of mistakes or faults.” Greenwashing means the same but refers to concepts and products being marketed as environmentally-friendly.

“I think the biggest danger (of greenwashing) is that people who are buying green products and services are doing so because that’s a conscious choice they’re making, and if the businesses they are supporting are not actually green, these people are being misled,” says Stephanie Jackman of REAP, an association of sustainable Calgary businesses. “The risk, if that happens enough, is that people will get frustrated with the whole idea and kind of give up, instead of the opposite, which is increasing demand for those products and services and increasing sustainability for all of us.”

Examples of greenwashing are all around. Michael Kalmanovitch, owner of Earth’s General Store in Edmonton names cleaning products, personal care products, food and cars as the categories of products most likely to harbour greenwashed goods. An easy way to spot them is to look for buzzwords such as organic, green or natural. “Quite often really green products don’t say ‘green,’ ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘fair trade’ without some sort of certification to back it up,” he says.

To an extent, the hoodwink is effective. “Most consumers want to feel good about their purchases—they’re looking for those forgiveness factors,” says Kalmanovitch. But the overwhelming presence of so-called green marketing takes its toll. Consumers begin to doubt the claims—if even a giant chemical or pharmaceutical company can identify itself as green, how can one tell who is telling the truth and who is lying?

As Jackman says, many of the products we have come to rely on, such as petroleum products and chemicals, are inherently not green, so when considering marketing claims from these types of industries it is important to remember the larger context. The eventual effect (which can be seen in the consumer population to some extent now) is people are made cynical about the idea of attempting to live in a more sustainable manner through their purchasing habits, and they stop caring altogether.

At the heart of the matter may be the very issue of consumption. After all, any marketing aimed at getting people to buy more new things is really just contributing to the problem. As Kalmanovitch points out, the first step to being an eco-conscious consumer is asking ourselves if we need the product in the first place. Often it is possible to make do, re-use, buy used, or do without something. By living more simply, it is possible to greatly reduce one’s footprint on the earth.

Of course, sometimes we all need to buy something, whether it’s food, cleaning products, clothing or a new car. When it has been determined that there is in fact a real need, a consumer can look for certain telltale signs of greenwashing as well as trustworthy reassurances of eco-friendliness to help guide their decisions.

“You educate yourself as much as you can—looking at labels, reading the ingredients list, and taking into account the whole product, where it is made, what type of packaging does it have—and then at some point you just have to take a leap,” says Lauren Maris, sustainability strategist and author of Live Green, Calgary! (http://www.livegreencalgary.com). “You have to say, ‘I think this is the best choice with the information I have right now,’ and give yourself permission to do that.” CL

Labels You Can Trust
✾    Canada Organic Standards logo (on food products): Ensures 95 per cent of ingredients are organic and, among other things, synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, and synthetic growth hormones were not used in a product’s production. Full explanation available at http://www.inspection.gc.ca. This logo comes into effect June 2009 and will override all current organic certifications such as USDA Organic.
✾    Fair Trade Certified: Ensures the product you’re purchasing was not made in a sweatshop and the company is working to improve social conditions for its workers, among other things. See http://www.transfair.ca
✾    Forest Stewardship Council logo (on wood and paper products): Ensures certified companies are maintaining the ecological integrity of the forest and complying with applicable laws, treaties and land rights, among other requirements. More information can be found at http://www.fsccanada.org
✾    EcoLogo: This logo, found on a wide range of products and even services, indicates the bearer is lower in impact than comparable products, when the entire life cycle from materials to disposal is examined. See http://www.ecologo.org
✾    Marine Stewardship Council Certified (on seafood products): This certification shows that the company is not overexploiting fish populations and is minimizing their environmental impact. See http://www.msc.org
✾    Cradle to Cradle Certified: This logo appears on products that have been designed using materials that will either fully biodegrade or can be completely recycled into new products. For more information, check mbdc.com/c2c/
✾    REAP Business Association is a network of sustainable Calgary businesses approved for their membership based on specific criteria from the Canadian Business for Social Responsibility and the Sustainable Business Institute, ensuring the companies are actively working to reduce their ecological footprint and improving social conditions.
See http://www.reapcalgary.com

Resources
✾    Green Living Online: http://www.greenlivingonline.com
✾    See “The Six Sins of Greenwashing” at http://www.terrachoice.com/Home/Six Sins of Greenwashing for the most common greenwashing tactics to watch out for.
✾    Greener Choices offers a page that will decode any eco-label for consumers. Confused about how green a product is? Check it out at http://www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-home.cfm
✾    For the scoop on all the greenest choices for products and services in Canada, Ecoholic (by Adria Vasil) is a reliable stand-by.
✾    Dr. Ellis Jones has ranked over 1,000 companies in 75 categories in his book The Better World Shopping Guide. Visit http://www.betterworldshopper.com for an incomplete listing which still includes everything from computers to airlines to peanut butter jelly.  
✾ Edmontonians Supporting a Green Economy (http://www.e-sage.ca) aims to “support (businesses and community members) in contributing to the development of a vibrant local living economy, community and environment through networking events and workshops.”

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