Green-washing in the Media: Are those extra dollars really making an impact?

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Photo by nathanschock I flickr.com

Today, industrial economic practices suggest that minimizing environmental impact costs money, and this cost is often passed down to the consumer who might wish to pay a premium for green products. However, green-washing refers to “a company or organization that spends more effort claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than by actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”

Although marketing companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon, research shows that regulations and governmental standards are often outdated. A survey by TerraChoice, an eco-marketing firm, indicated that 65% of customers surveyed want a single seal or stamp that certifies or approves a product as environmentally friendly, in the same way that food is certified by the Food Inspection Agency, or buildings can be LEED certified.

In the absence of such standards, it is up to consumers to sift through the green-washed impostors and determine the genuinely environmentally friendly products. Here are five helpful tips:

1. If the product’s marketing campaign makes vague statements such as “uses 90% less material!” or “50% less waste!” a good question is “50% less than what?” While waste reduction is good, the product may still use more than the industry average which is a prime example of green-washing.

2. If the marketing campaign is covered in trees, smiling children and other symbols, without any concrete evidence of how it is environmentally friendly, the company is likely diverting attention from the real issues. An environmentally friendly brand should be transparent about its methods and benefits: if the company insults your intelligence by providing only slogans and pictures, the ‘green’ claims are likely phony.

3. Even an energy efficient product can be wasteful if it comes individually wrapped in many layers and cannot be easily reused or recycled, and is shipped from far away. When considering a product’s impact it is important to take its entire life cycle into account.

4. Some products (such as gas-guzzling SUVs, disposable water-bottles and plastic bags) are fundamentally ‘un-green.’ A product or brand that has recently faced criticism for its ecological- footprint may be looking to quickly re-vamp their image, rather than make any genuine changes.

5. If you’re still not convinced, or something about the product or its ad-campaign doesn’t sit right with you, a quick Google search, the handy Green-washing Index or the 2010 Green-washing report can often reveal its true nature.

As advertisers descend on the ‘green’ trend like a pack of rabid dogs, I am concerned that this rampant abuse of the slogan may lead to desensitization and complacency in consumers, due to a perceived environmental benefit from buying a certain brand.

I leave you with the best practice of all: Do your own research before buying a product on the basis of its advertising campaigns.

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Sneha Bernard is a recent Engineering Physics graduate from McMaster University who has always had an interest in environmental issues and enjoys learning about environmental policy, sustainable energy and preventative engineering. When she’s not writing articles for The Starfish, or figuring out what to do with the rest of her life, she enjoys running, yoga, reading and drinking copious amounts of coffee. Welcome to the team, Sneha!