"Clean" marketing: Why greenwashing works, and why it's acceptable.

Image by elycefeliz | flickr.com

Image by elycefeliz | flickr.com

After reading Steve Watts’ recent article, An Illusion of Green, on the Starfish homepage (which you should all do now!), I tried really hard to keep my mouth shut.  Turns out I couldn’t.  The article itself is exceptionally informative and raises an important issue surrounding our attempt at shifting society towards a (seemingly) more environmentally friendly status.  But it’s not the article that brings out my overactive need to rant – it is actually two issues related to the article: firstly, why I don’t think there is anything wrong with the way companies currently promote their products, and secondly (to a lesser and perhaps irrelevant extent), my feelings towards this episode of CBC’s Marketplace in the form of a mini-rant.  Fair warning: I use some form of the word ‘manipulate’ quite excessively throughout.

Don’t get me wrong – CBC is my number one source of news and I have a very high level of respect towards CBC, but there is something about this episode that makes me really uncomfortable about the way all of this information is presented.  I assume that the majority of viewers regard Marketplace as the ‘hero’ in the war against manipulative companies – revealing the so-called dark truths of something I would consider nothing more than straightforward business. 

I can’t help but wonder whether Marketplace is in fact the party guilty of manipulation here.  Shouldn’t we, as consumers, be conducting this research on our own anyway? If one has an overwhelming urge to access a list of ingredients for dish soap (for whatever reason), do they not have the option of taking the same actions as the show?  Have we become so used to having everything handed to us that we need a television show to do our research for us? 

By the way, I’m an environmental toxicology student who is extremely concerned with the release of chemicals into the environment and ultimately, our own bodies.  Translation? Unfortunately, I know some pretty depressing stuff about the harmful effects chemicals can have on our health.  So, in no way am I claiming that evaluating the effects of contaminants is not a priority.  It most certainly is, and I am dedicating a good chunk of my life to this field of study, but I do not think this is an effective way of generating consumer power. 

Since we’re already talking toxicology, quick side note: I have a pretty big concern with the claim made on the program stating that Dawn dish soap, the product of choice used to clean wildlife affected by oil spills, contains triclosan, an ingredient which they stated is “officially toxic to aquatic life”.  Of course, there is no link to said study on the related CBC news article, though I have many questions here.  To what organisms in particular is it toxic?  Does it affect animals differently depending on specific physiologies (for example, does it affect fish differently than ducks?).  How do they define what is and isn’t aquatic life?  In what doses is it toxic? (Everything is toxic at some concentration).  In what doses are animals exposed?  Do we see wildlife exposed to harmful levels of this ingredient, or are these levels only achieved under laboratory conditions in concentrations not actually observed in nature?  Is this ingredient easily eliminated by organisms, or does it accumulate over time?  How is the word ‘harmful’ defined in this study? Endocrine disruption? Reproductive complexities?  Mortality?  Does it harm 1% or 99% of animals studied?  Are there even any less toxic cleaning alternatives out there to use on oil-covered animals?  Despite all these questions, I expect that most viewers probably heard the host of the show make this statement, and failed to question how that conclusion was made – hence my obvious frustration towards this episode and especially this claim, in particular.  I am not so much questioning whether or not triclosan is in fact toxic to aquatic organisms (i.e., the integrity of the research - see this study by Tatarazako et al.) as much as I am questioning why the shocked mothers on the show (likely a representation of most viewers) were so quick to accept this fact without requesting any proof.

While reading the remaining “10 worst household products”, I was overwhelmed with how manipulative and flawed I found these statements to be that I had to stop at #3.  You can look those up and judge for yourself.

The ‘victims of manipulative marketing’ on the show (and presumably most of the audience) were completely convinced that companies like Dawn are terrible, manipulative (there’s that word) companies who have betrayed their consumers by lying about their products’ ingredients. Ironically, this show demonstrated that these companies were not necessarily lying, but rather allowing consumers to interpret labels such as ‘98% natural’ and ‘derived from natural products’ for themselves.  It just so happens that the most obvious interpretation isn’t the correct one.  I believe there’s a term for this.  Oh yes – marketing.  If the consumer isn’t willing to do the research, and the company isn’t legally obligated to display an ingredients list on the packaging, the company (technically, and in my mind) isn’t doing anything wrong.  You can’t blame a company for having a strong marketing department if the reason for it is because of your gullibility!

My advice? Vinegar and water - the traditional, truly environmentally friendly cleaning agent!  Instead of complaining about greenwashing, take matters into your own hands!

Agree?  Disagree?  Urge to debate?  I’m a toxicology nerd.  Email me if you want to continue the discussion (mandy@thestarfish.ca).

Mandy McDougall