Seven Sins

TerraChoice is out with an update to 2007’s Six Sins of Greenwashing, and they’ve made it clear with the title of the new study that we’re heading in the wrong direction (It’s now the Seven Sins of Greenwashing.)  Here are a couple of the key findings:

  • They reviewed back issues of several popular magazines — Time, Fortune, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair — and found that in 2008 10% of the ads made some sort of green claim.  That’s compared to 3% of ads making a green claim in 2006.
  • They also reviewed 2,219 products in North America (the US and Canada) in big box retail settings and discovered that 98% of them commit at least one of their Seven Sins.

This provides the foundation for the consumer skepticism we see in our Eco Pulse research.  Last year 40% of the population told us they felt less than positively about all the media attention around green (these emotions ranged from skeptical and irritated to unaffected), and when we asked why companies who make environmental efforts do so, the overwhelming majority told us, “to make their companies look better to the public,” followed by “for marketing.”  Only 13% believed companies make environmental efforts/claims because the owners of the company/boards of directors actually care about the environment.

Our 2009 Eco Pulse study will be out next month — we’re in the field with it now — and, based on the focus groups we conducted in advance of the study, we expect to see the skepticism and confusion continue (particularly around the words “natural” and “organic” which TerraChoice devotes a section in their report to as well).  The question, then, is what to do about it?

As a consumer myself, I felt pretty disheartened with TerraChoice’s finding that almost all products with a green claim are committing greenwashing. 98% is a pretty big number to overcome…so how can we expect consumers to do anything but throw up their hands?  I’d like to see these guys, in their next study, create a sliding scale of sinning and actually name names (something their current report doesn’t do).  I’d like to see the list of products with some sort of ranking next to each one letting me know, as a consumer, which products are the worst sinners (i.e. they sin in a breaking-the-Ten-Commandments sort of way) and which ones are the most innocent sinners (i.e. they sin in a white-lie, dog-ate-my-homework sort of way). This list could be published — and I’m sure the media would run with it — and then consumers would know how to make a more informed choice.

Interestingly, their study does offer up several labels consumers can look for that do indicate some measure of green-ness…but we’ve tested all those labels in our focus groups and, with the exception of ENERGY STAR®, they’re all absolutely unrecognized by consumers. So though a black-and-white labeling system would be ideal, I think the sliding scale may be the best for this issue since the definition of green is so very complicated.

Either way, what there is for all of us to do is educate consumers about how green should be defined and help them better understand which companies and products are measuring up.  Otherwise, consumers will just stay paralyzed by their confusion, skepticism and fear of being misled, and they’ll do nothing.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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